Monday, July 29, 2013

Days on Fire is PUBLISHED!!


In my last post, I wrote about meeting with the directors of Elan Sud and discussing a possible French-language edition of my Van Gogh novel.  Well, how fitting that with this post I can finally announce the publication of the original English language version of the book.  That's right, Days on Fire is finally out and available!  The book can be purchased through Amazon. com here; also through Barnes & here; and through here.  It can also be special ordered by your favorite neighborhood bookstore through Ingram Distributors.  Finally, for readers in the UK, the book is available through  Click here for that link.

This sure has been a long time coming.  I started this blog, after all,  back in 2009.  Along the way, various readers have been asking me, "Why can't I buy a copy of your book?"  Well, the simple and most truthful reason is that all good things take time, and I think it took a fair amount of time for the book to finally take the shape it needed to be.  But here it is.  If you decide to get it, I hope it is the pleasure for you to read that it always was for me to write--even despite how long it took!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Enjoy the unexpected


Last week, I had one of the more unique experiences of my writing life: meeting with the directors of Elan Sud, a boutique French publisher, at their cozy headquarters on a quiet side street in Orange. The interview was arranged by the woman who owns the house we were renting in Rapheles-les-Arles, an avid book reader and the friend of an author who publishes with this press.  It was a wonderful experience talking with Madame Corinne Neidegger and her partner Monsieur Dominique Lin. Madame Neidegger understands spoken English but speaks little herself; Dominque speaks and understands English, yet it is, of course, very far from being a first language for him; I understand spoken French somewhat, but I don’t speak it well at all.  So for over an hour we engaged in a fascinating triangulated conversation.  Madame Neidegger asked me questions in French, and I answered them mostly in English, with interpretations and amplifications provided by Dominique, a working writer himself--I bought one of his novels (Toca Leon!) during my visit--with long experience in the publishing industry, as has Madame Neidegger.  In fact, Madame Neidegger once worked for Actes-Sud, one of the largest publishers in all of France and a company headquartered in Arles.

A passion for well-written, well-edited books is what encouraged them to start Elan Sud.  Like many niche presses, it is a labor of love and one that tries to address important needs left behind by mainstream publishers.  For Elan Sud, this means publishing, among other things, graphic novels, novels by young first time writers (through a labor intensive, multi-stage submissions and drafting process), and publishing fiction set in atypical settings, like Cuba.  We spent a good deal of time discussing my Van Gogh novel, but also many minutes reviewing the state of publishing in France.  What was striking was how similar their complaints were to complaints made about publishing in the United States; e.g., a few massive houses buying up many smaller presses, a lack of courage and originality in what they publish, too many examples of patently bad books—with little evidence of editorial oversight—being not only allowed into the market but turning into bestsellers.  The subject of Fifty Shades of Gray came up.  (Yes, the book has been published in France too.)  I told them what I tell everyone: I hear that it’s pretty badly written.  Dominique was beside himself.  “Of course, of course, it’s badly written. That’s what everyone says.  And I don’t understand.  When somebody  tells me this food smells terrible and tries to give it to me, I will not eat it.  But if someone says , this book is terrible, people want to read it!” 

They are both lovely, dedicated, and shrewd people, with wonderful senses of humor and an abiding interest in publishing provocative work.  Here I thought I was driving to Orange from Arles just to drop off a copy of my novel, and I found myself invited in, given a place to sit, offered coffee, and engaging in a chat that lasted seventy minutes long and covered everything from my own life history to the history of my book to the characteristic of my book to the characteristics of their press to the state of “the book” to the practical challenges of literary translation.  We even talked over their philosophy on book covers.  I’ve never had a more engaging if nerve-wracking hour, an hour I could never have imagined for myself years ago when I first started my book.  One I could have never imagined for myself when I first thought of visiting France.  Sometimes, it’s simply amazing where a project can take you.  In this case, I really mean where.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Toujours Montmajour


Van Gogh visited the abandoned abbey of Montmajour several times when he lived in Arles.  For a dedicated hiker like himself, the long steady trudge up the side of a hill a few miles outside of town presented no great obstacle, even with an easel strapped to his back, and from inside the abbey the views of the surrounding countryside were spectacular, well worth to him whatever effort it took to get them.  Right now in Provence we are starting to feel the heat of
midsummer--something of course the area is known for, along with the intensely bright sunshine that beams at you from cloudless blue
skies--and the heat, like the long walks, never seemed to bother Van Gogh either, despite his fair Dutch skin.  Even during the dog days of August he claimed to be as happy working in the heat as a cicada singing in a tree.  (Something else the area is known for.)

So I feel it's appropriate that I visited Montmajour for the fourth time myself the other day, during the middle of a heat wave.  It's the kind of place that seems forever unchanging but at the same time wears a new face each time you visit.  Kind of like provence itself.  A bit of a side note here: I was just thinking to myself the other morning, and jotting down in my journal, that Provence seems
to have a very different idea of progress than other places I know.  It's not that nothing changes here--inevitably that happens--but at a significantly slower, steadier pace and in ways that are intentionally meant to integrate with life and the rhythms of life that have been long established.  New houses get built, but not so many as to wreak wholesale havoc on the landscape.  And the houses themselves are built to fit in with the overall look of the region.  It's what people want.  It's what house buyers want.  The idea is that the new houses look like they have been there for decades.  The roads are well-maintained, but they are almost uniformly narrow, and that's not going to change.  For instance, the road that takes you from  Raphele to Arles--D453--features beautiful rows of plane trees bordering both sides for a stretch that goes on for miles.  It would be impossible to expand that road without getting rid of the bordering plane trees.  So will they ever do that?  Of course not.  In America, especially recently, and especially in central Arkansas, where I happen to live, politicians and city planners seem to think that nothing says progress more than ripped up roads and more ripped up roads.  New housing developments and more new housing developments.  That, from the American view, is progress.  From the Provencal point of view that is regress.  Change that integrates with a centuries old way of life is beneficial and acceptable; change that threatens that way of life is unthinkable.  No wonder this place seems so significantly the same each time I visit--and no wonder its rustic beauty endures.

Back to Montmajour.  Due to the very slow pace of change, it's possible to get views from the abbey that are identical, or nearly so, to what Van Gogh saw when he tramped up there: wheat fields, pasturing lands for horses, a single farm house bordered by tall trees acting as a wind break, a tall rocky hill in the near distance, the ancient cityscape of Arles much farther away.  As I said, it's worth the visit just to see that view.  But the abbey itself always maintains a shadowy solemn stone grandeur, something that didn't particularly interest Van Gogh--who rarely sketched or painted the abbey itself--but never fails to affect me.  When you visit, you start in the crypt area of the abbey and slowly wind your way upward.  First to the tall, empty walls of the church--a sign informs you that despite its current bare appearance the church was extremely ornamented and decorated during its day--and then to open courtyard bordered by several small chambers.  Rooms for the monks long ago.  Finally outside to the upper rim of the abbey, where one finds those great views.  But it hardly stops there.  A defensive tower was installed at the abbey in the fourteenth century at the command of the abbot in reaction to troops from Les Baux who were attacking Arles.  Today one can climb a tall, tightly winding stone staircase to reach the  top of the tower and there be rewarded with even longer, more distant views.  One can see clear all the way to Tarascon.  Coming down from and out of the tower, your self-guided tour naturally leads to the back of the outer area where you see a series of rectangular, box-like holes cuts into the rocky terrain.  (Check the picture above.)  And by rocky I mean literally into a sheet of rock itself.  These holes are the remains of a very old burial ground.  Indeed, it was this burial ground which necessitated the abbey being built in the first place.  As you stand outside looking at these tiny graves carved into rock, the wind blows past your ears, the road outside is silent, and you can still feel the presence of ideas and people--and ideas of people--long past but still whispering.

It's a quiet experience, visiting the abbey.  It's certainly a tourist spot, but not exactly overrun--not during any of the four times I've come.  The abbey keeps itself current today by hosting a series of art exhibits all year long.  Fascinating to see these old stone rooms enlivened with contemporary art.  Some might see that as a violation, but I don't.  The art, while not expressly religious, seems appropriately selected for the space.  Given that the abbey is most famous now for the hold it once kept on a single lonely Dutch painter, who lived in Arles for merely a year, I love to see that Montmajour's administrators honor its connection to art in what I think is the best way possible--by featuring the output of current, working artists.   The stone structure of a dead abbey shines with the creations of living imaginations--and stirs the living imagination of any who walk through it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Great Writing great


While in the United States most people are still sound asleep, I'm typing this post from what is just about my favorite locale in the world: a little provencal town called Raphele-les-Arles and an elegantly restored farm house its owners call Mas Ballot.  We just came over yesterday from London where the Great Writing conference convened last weekend.  As usual, Great Writing was superb, with an astonishing variety of participants and a palpable spirit of collaboration.  I talked with a Scottish woman who long ago migrated to northern Israel and now teaches in a university there.  I talked with an Australian woman who lives in Turkey.  I talked with a Mexican-American woman from California who teaches writing in Germany.  I talked with an American poet who before coming to the conference had done the grand tour of Europe with his grandchildren and his daughter--Nicole Cooley--who, as it turned out, was one of the stars of the conference.  (She's pictured below.)  I talked with an Irish woman who not quite so long ago migrated to New Zealand, where she is currently finishing a Ph.D., although she may soon need to move to California because it appears that her partner is set to take a job there.  I talked with a South African woman who lived three years in the U.S. and has for sixteen in England.  I talked with an Englishman who teaches in Scotland and an Irishman who teaches in England.

I heard a researcher from South Africa present a paper comparing the approaches of two separate primary school teachers in her country and how the assignments they used--and the results they got--reflected their two very different attitudes toward creative writing itself.  (Not surprisingly, the teacher who trusted in and encouraged her students' originality, who saw creative writing as an important act in and of itself, not merely a means to teach a variety of language arts terms, achieved much more with her students.)  What I couldn't help but think was that this all sounded exactly like the problem with language arts instruction in my son's own school back in Conway, Arkansas.  I heard a poet read who is half-Tanzanian and half-British but who was raised in northern Canada, where she still lives and teaches and farms.  (Yes, by choice and it's no easier to farm there--organically, no less--than you might expect.)  I heard a French woman who lives in Australia read a paper on the work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  I heard an Australian fiction writer who teaches in England and whose last novel was a considerable literary success in America--i.e. David Rain (author of The Heat of the Sun)--give a wonderful presentation on the "Seven Myths of Writing."  (That's him pictured above.)  I heard an academic from New Zealand read a homage to Flannery O'Connor, a paper that focused on O'Connor's days as a student in the Iowa Writers Workshop, where the New Zealander academic had spent a summer two years earlier participating in fiction workshops led by Lan Samantha Chang.

It was inspiring to see so much thought, so much concern, so much passion expressed on the subject of writing and writing instruction--and from so many corners of the world.  We teachers of writing walk around with the notion, I think, that we are all so provincial, suffering in our own little salt mines with nobody much paying attention or understanding.  But Great Writing demonstrated again, as it always does, how hopelessly wrong such ideas are. With a conference so globally aware and globally focused, it should come as no surprise that even the meeting's two main
organizer's--Graeme Harper and Simon Holloway--are from elsewhere.  (Graeme currently lives and teaches in Michigan, and Simon teaches in Manchester, England.)  Not a single person associated with the conference actually works for Imperial College, London, where the gathering took place.  Everything about Great Writing--from its planning to its outreach to its intentions--is "from afar."  That's what makes it such a fascinating gathering, especially for writers like me whose experience with writers conferences mostly derives from the enormous and inward-looking AWP conference.  Great Writing is much less enormous and much more outwardly focused.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Great Writing Keynote Lecture, which this year was not so much a lecture but a series of short (five minutes) presentations on various issues surrounding creative writing from ten different speakers from around the world.  Graeme called it "10 X 5," and it might have been the highlight of the gathering, because not only was it fascinating to hear what concerns different people from different parts of the creative writing universe, but it stimulated a terrific amount of discussion immediately afterwards, which was exactly the point.  An English writer and teacher expressed concern that with his students increasing fascination with, and commitment to, electronic media they might lose their connection to the immediate, visceral world around them.  Thus he takes them to an old but still functioning train station in Staffordshire and makes them observe the living stories being written moment by moment in that building by those who pass through it.  A Scottish writer noted that with the growing independence movement in Scotland, a movement that has embraced Scottish writers among other aspects of Scottish culture, being a working creative writer in Scotland today is implicitly a political act.  Nicole Cooley decried that outrageous cost of many American MFA programs and also their lily-white color (too few teachers, students, and visiting writers of color, she rightly companied).  Her applause line: "No one should have to go $60,000 in debt to become a poet."  Another speaker from England, a woman who is a poet and archivist, argued that creative writers ought to take better advantage of the archives of their local institutions.  There is no end to the number of stories embedded in those documents, she said.

It's to be expected that any discussion about issues in creative writing practice and creative writing instruction leads to complaints about creative writing's place in the academy.  This was certainly true Saturday evening in the post-lecture discussion.  There is, after all, much to complain about.  And some of the complaints--not all but some--are amazingly consistent from continent to continent.  But finally Simon Holloway raised a good point.  He said that in all the years he had participated in Great Writing he had constantly heard creative writing instructors strike up defensive poses, as if they had to justify the very existence of their discipline.  (Unfortunately, they probably did--and in many places, my own university included, they still do.)  "But when," Simon asked, "are we going to go on the offensive?  When are we going to say to these administrators, 'Look at all the students we bring in; look at all the tuition funds we raise; look at all the prestige and good press we generate.  What are you going to do for us in return?'"  Simon suggested that maybe it's about time to turn the tables and offer a few "help us or else" ultimatums.  It was great to hear, great to consider, and probably long overdue.  It's a kind of fighting spirit I'll need to remember when long after this exquisite French rest stop is over and I'm back in the academic trenches in Arkansas.