Monday, October 20, 2014

New Van Gogh collection!


When I was working on my Van Gogh novel, Days on Fire, the one source I found myself coming back to constantly was the mammoth, three volume, hardbound Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, published originally by Bulfinch back in the 1950s.  It's an incredible resource: a better, fairer, clearer view into the mind and world of Van Gogh than any biography or novel (shhhh) or recollection "by those who knew him" (which are often marred by how little they really knew him).  Exacting descriptions of place he has visited; despair about his artwork and exultation about the same; resentment toward his brother and exhortations to him; disputes with his father; chatty discussions about (now long forgotten) artists or art dealers or paint supply store owners; opinions about the (countless) books he read; revelations about the women he loves and about love itself; depictions of the depressingly, growingly hopeless life at St. Paul's asylum in Saint Rémy--it's all there, along with so much more.  A whole adult life documented with a fantaticism of detail that is just about one of a kind, really.  As I say so often, I think surely it must be these letters--and Van Gogh's roadside eloquence--that accounts for our continued fascination with the man, just as much as his beautiful paintings and a life that was marked with so much tragedy, idealism, and stubbornness.   The one drawback to such a thorough recored, of course, is its necessary length.  The Complete Letters runs to something like 1800 pages.   Not a weekend read!  And while it's useful to watch the arc of the man's life play out over these hundreds of missives, long and short, profound and mundane, energized and bored and despairing, it's also true that not every letter is crucial to understanding Van Gogh, his time, and his milieau.  Or not crucial in the same way.  

So it's welcome news that in December a new selected edition of Van Gogh's letters will be published by Yale University Press, one with the beguiling title Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.  You might have read Dan Piepenbring's early glimpse into the volume, published recently in Paris Review.  It certainly does sound like a promising new book: almost 800 pages in length, with 265 out of the extant 820 letters included, along with family photographs and 87 pages worth of reproductions from the actual handwritten letters.  At $50 it doesn't come cheap, but for a Van Gogh lover--or anyone simply curious about learning more about this fascinating person--it looks to me like money well spent. Of course, which letters you finally deem "essential" will depend on who you are and what you are trying to learn about the painter, but without yet having had the chance to review the collection I can take a pretty fair guess at some of the letters regarded as "musts": the letters written to Theo in the period of abject despair and loss of identity after being removed from his position as lay minister to miners in the Borinage region of Belgium; the letters to Theo explaining why the "no" delivered to Vincent by his cousin K was not really a "no," and why even in the turbulent state of his emotions it was better by far to feel such a powerful love than none at all; the letters to Theo glorifying the peaceful home life he enjoyed with his new life partner Sien and why, despite her being a former prostitute, Vincent regarded her as his wife and insisted the family do as well; letters describing his almost manic level of energy and the resulting "high yellow note" that marked his painting in that fitful, historic, crucial summer in Arles in 1888; the heartbreaking letter from St. Paul's in which he describes the painting he has just made in honor of the birth of his nephew (named after him) and his desire to bring it to the boy in person.  Interesting man, yes?  And let's face it, 800 pages--while hardly an inconsequential entry into Van Gogh's life and writing--is a much quicker read than 1800 pages.  This sounds like the perfect introduction to the other Van Gogh: the riveting literary artist.

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Not to blow my own horn, but I am amazed and humbled by the fine reception my story collection Island Fog is receiving from book bloggers and other reviewers.  Here are two I found out about just yesterday: one comes from the book blog Books Are Love; the other from the Australian book blog The Bookshelft Garogyle.  (Great title, huh?)  Then there's the really positive one I got from Kirkus.You just write the stories and try to make them the best you can; then they go out there and you can't ever really (really) know if they are as good as you hope, not until such kind words come back to you.  I can't say how grateful I am.   And a little amazed.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Changing history, refining character, winning the story


Last week in my historical fiction workshop class we were discussing the second half of one of the model novels I assigned them: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.  Virtually to a person, the class loved the book: its narrator, his dialect, the humorous situations, the seeming fidelity to the time period, the insight into crucial historical figures (e.g., John BrownFrederick DouglassHarriet Tubman) and an event (the raid on Harper's Ferry) that proved to be one of the most significant catalysts for the Civil War.  But what proved especially interesting to the class, and significant to me as a writer, is the extent to which McBride gently--or not so gently--toyed with historical facts in order to reinforce the characterizations that he was consciously trying to establish.

Before we begin, the obvious needs to stated: John Brown's reputation has been pretty low for a pretty long time.  There have been some recent efforts to revise our inherited notions about him and his raid, but--and the comments of my students bore this out--our general understanding of the man is that he was violent, self-righteous, and humorless; a religious zealot on the order of a terrorist; and that his plan to take the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and lead a slave rebellion was the height of lunacy.  Guaranteed to fail.  It's safe to say that James McBride doesn't--and never did--see Brown this way.  In fact, he dedicates the book to the man and to all who have helped keep Brown's memory alive.  In interviews, McBride is not afraid to admit that he regards John Brown as one of his personal heroes.

The challenge for McBride as an historical novelist, therefore, is to show John Brown and his failed raid in a way that does not repel a reader inclined to be suspicious of the man.  The challenge is to find a way to lead such a reader into the narrative and keep him there.  One immediately apparent way is his choice of a narrator.  McBride doesn't even consider having Brown tell his own story.  Instead, the job of narrating falls to Henry Shackleford.  Henry is a fictional creation, a character who when he knew Brown and was drawn into the events at Harper's Ferry was a young boy, barely an adolescent.  (He ages from roughly 12 to 15 over the course of the novel.)  Henry, or "Onion" as Brown calls him, is funny, honest, and salty.  He's a fantastic narrator, one whose living situation--he is made to dress like a girl and tries to fool everyone, white and black alike, about his real gender--is not exactly original but is handled in a thoroughly entertaining manner by McBride.  With the Onion narrating one can't help but listen to the story of John Brown.  

But what's more revealing, and more instructive, are the many subtle and not so subtle ways that McBride alters the historical record in order to make Brown more sympathetic, his character more in keeping with the gruff and loopy but good-hearted and uniquely likeable "Old Man" that McBride tries to establish.  Whereas in real life, Brown was the one making decisions and making mistakes, in the novel Brown is seen in many separate instances as the victim of others' wrongheaded choices or lapses in duty or outright criminality.  In the book he trusts people too much and seems convinced people will do the right thing when given the choice to.  One can't help but admire and even love a person like that, even as his trust and high opinion of others leads him into personal disaster.   Without doubt, Onion loves John Brown by book's end, he would do practically anything for the old coot.  But, again, this depiction is the result of some very cagy nudging of and yanking on the historical record.   For instance,  in one riveting chapter, Brown, after many weeks of exhausting fundraising among abolitionists groups on the east coast, turns over all the money he has raised to an Englishman named Hugh Forbes.  Forbes promises to meet up with Brown in Iowa, where Brown's army is quartered, and train Brown's men as only a professional soldier can.   Brown is ecstatic at this development, on fire with optimism, convinced that Forbe's aid will be the difference between his men being a ragged militia and an effective, fighting army.  In the novel, Forbes walks off with Brown's money and never shows up in Iowa.  Poor Brown, one thinks, how could he have been so trusting, and what is he going to do for money now?  Well, in real life too there was an Englishman named Hugh Forbes who Brown enlisted to train his men.   That Forbes did go to Iowa, and did try to train the men.  In fact he stayed on the job for three months.  He only left because Brown was not paying him his promised salary and Brown was also meddling with Forbes's efforts.

In the book Brown sends one of his men ahead to Harpers Ferry to rent a large house for his army.  This man, Cook, is a complete ne'er-do-well, a womanizer who will put his own desires above the needs of a group at any time.  Brown knows this, he's warned of it, and yet he believes in Cook enough to give him the important job anyway.  He also sends along Onion to keep an eye on Cook and, more importantly, recruit blacks for the rebellion.  As the reader expects, Cook royally botches his responsibilty, renting a house that is in such a terrible location (in order to be near a buxom working girl) that the essential plan is compromised and must be critically altered.  Onion, meanwhile, mostly fails in his recruitment efforts and then also fails in what proves to be his singlemost important duty: to pass on a secret password to Brown's men, a password that will tell a large contingent of blacks, arriving on a train from Baltimore, that the attack is on.  Because Brown's men never receive the password, and thus have none to give, the blacks turn away (as Onion had been warned they would).  They don't join the rebellion, leaving Brown and his men to face the army of the U.S. government alone.  In real life, Brown rented the house himself, and the failure to recruit a sufficient number of black men for his army lay in the unfeasibility of the plan itself.  

These are just a couple examples of the many historical alterations rendered by McBride.  I should say that in several matters McBride does stay true to what events happened and when; also to the names of principal historical figures.  It's not like he's just rewriting history out of whole cloth.  No, he's far more strategic and artful than that: bending facts here and there to color impressions.  One more example, this involving Frederick Douglass.  The renowned abolitionist spokesman and former slave was of course the most respected and listened to black voice at the time.  And Brown did indeed know Frederick Douglass and tried to enlist his moral support for the Harpers Ferry raid.  In the book, as in real life, Douglass does not support the raid.  He thinks it is suicidal and says so.  But what in real life comes across as a cautious and reasonable--if not exactly heroic--calculation, is presented in the novel as an act of betrayal by a hypocritical, thin-skinned, dandified man who has forgotten where he came from.   Douglass is presented as having two wives at the same time--one white, one black--as well as shown trying to loosen up the young Onion with alcohol so he can have his way with "her," in his own house, with his wives only rooms away.

As several students pointed out, despite Douglass's idealistic fervor in support of freeing the Negro, in the novel he has no trouble "enslaving" women to his desires, keeping them essentially as chattel.  Crucially, in The Good Lord Bird only slaves-- both men and women--are able to see immediately into Onion's true nature.  It's the whites and fancy, free negroes who are fooled (constantly) by his dress and by his smooth, young, mulatto face.   The fact that Douglass cannot tell that Onion is really a boy tells you exactly on which side of the divide McBride wants to set the great orator.  (In contrast, at novel's end we find out that Brown knew all along that Onion was a boy.) Through the voice of Onion, McBride ridicules Douglass as a man who just likes to hear himself talk, who won't ever really risk anything, even for the sake of the Negro, and who so can't handle liquor that he gets drunk under the table by a 14-year-old.  In real life, Douglass was never married to two woman at the same time.  He took a second wife only after his first died (as many widowers do).  He was actually an impassioned advocate for women's suffrage, speaking at the Seneca Falls Convention and at one point even serving as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull, the presidential nominee of the Equal Rights Party ticket.  And since Onion is a complete fiction, we can't say whether or not Douglass was able to recognize 14 year-old-boys disguised as girls. 

I hope this discussion does not make it sound like I'm criticizing McBride.  Far from it.  Instead I am trying to suggest (once again) the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The latter uses history--as faithfully as possible--but finally the historical fiction must be  committed to story and character above all else.  If it wants to succeed in the eyes of a reader, that is; if it wants to earn a reader's love and admiration.  Even if that means winking at the historical record and giving that record a conscious, cagy twist.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

The burden of the opinionator


I return to my writing classes tomorrow after canceling for a week to allow my students to attend the many different writing-related activities that went on during UCA's LGBT History Month celebration.  (See last's week's post.)  I'm grateful to return to the classroom, and eager to hear the students' impressions of the writers who came to campus, but there's one aspect of the teaching business that I won't exactly welcome back with open arms.  And that is the necessity of always having an opinion.  For a long time, but especially the last few years, this has increasingly been the single aspect of my job that I've struggled with.  One hears now and again about teacher burnout.  Usually what's evoked is misbehaving students; or meddlesome, government-enforced testing requirements; or ill-informed administrators; or a lack of financial support for important educational initiatives; or a widespread lack of respect in the community.  And I'm sure that for K-12 teachers those factors are extremely prominent.  But for a university writing teacher, especially a creative writing teacher, I thinkwhat burdens them more often is simply the matter of having to constantly deliver opinions about student writing.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not talking about the burden of reading student writing.  I am thrilled to see what my students come up with.  Sure, not all of it is world-changing, but to see what ideas and approaches they employ can be insipring.  Just this semester, for example, the different stories my students are working on in historical fiction workshop class make a study in the variety of human curiosity: a young mother goes missing in Kansas in the 30s, a teenager goes missing in New York City in the 70s, the son of a musician struggles to cope in German-occupied Paris,  Canadian soldiers battle on the front lines in World War I, a nineteenth-century woman invents a lurid, bestselling tale about sexual abuse in a convent, a miner in the 20s falls for a woman he can't have, a patient in a dubious mental asylum in the 60s resists authority, Leah (from the bibilcal account) expresses her secret resentment of Rachel, workers riot in the 30s.  Reading these stories is never a burden.  But having to constantly lay down judgements about them, and advice for them, can be exhausting.  Not because I don't think I have good advice to offer--at least part of the time I certainly do--and not because my opinion-making is restricting the students' access to others' opinions.  (There are several possible mechanisms for feedback in a workshop course.)  But because reading with the idea that I will have to present at least one typed page of feedback on the story--and the student is waiting impatiently for such feedback--is a very different and demanding reading experience from any other reading experience in daily life.

When I read an author for pleasure, I tend to read rather forgivingly.  This is not to say that I do not notice weaknesses in some of the books and stories I read, or that I won't finally grow testy about those weaknesses, but that I tend to grant the author the benefit of the doubt for a good long time.  I tend to give a book a chance to prove itself to me on its own terms; to withhold judgement until I have a better sense of what the book is "about," what it's up to, how it's put together.   In short, I tend to read with an open mind.  But when reading in order to give opinions one must read with considerable more ferocity. Sometimes that's a good thing, because it means you are also reading with a great deal more attention.  But many times it just feels more draining.  Having to be the expert, the one with all the answers, can indeed be a burden.   Sometimes you just feel like saying, "This looks pretty good.   Keep going."  (And occasionally this is, more or less, what I say.)  But I tend to think that if that's all I say too often, the students will feel cheated of their tuition money.  And they would be right.  Indeed, the weird truth of the matter is that I am paid to have opinions.  So I do the best I can, sometimes stating what is working and what isn't with more absolutism than I actually feel.  (Other times, however, those determinations seem perfectly obvious.)

I say a second time, don't get me wrong.  I feel extremely fortunate to have the job I do and to work where I do.  Most days at most hours I am content, even quietly blissful.  But even good jobs have their tough parts; that is, the parts that don't match up so well with one's personality.  I think the fundamental problem is that creative writing--especially in the heady first draft stage--is almost entirely a matter of opening yourself up, flipping the switch so the current flows and keeps flowing.  It's not about being critical or doubting or judgmental.  It's getting started, letting yourself go, and forgiving all the temporary lapses.  It feels great,  it's absolutely crucial, and I'm convinced it's what hooks so many people so early on creative writing.  And it's what keeps us there.   Reading in order to have an opinion about what's wrong is the exact opposite mental condition.  It's like having to hold one huge muscle in my mind in abeyance while stressing another entirely, even unnaturally, almost to the point of taxation.  And it's not exactly soul-satisfying.  I don't know if this  comes as a surprise to anyone or not.  I suspect that most students think they're professors are enthralled by the idea of being the expert, the one at the front, the one with all the answers.  I suppose some professors do feel that way.  But I believe that more probably feel like I do: that being the expert can be an awful pain in the rear.  As well as being at odds with who you are and what you do.  Being an expert isn't how I get any story started.  Being an amateur explorer, a dubious risk-taker, and a weekend cliff diver is.  That way the education comes to you from the writing itself.  And so too does all the fun.

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More book news!  (Please excuse the self-promotion.)  Island Fog is fully out!  The paperback can be purchased through, and  Meanwhile, a Kindle e-book version is available through Amazon and  If you do read it, please put up a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon and/or, etc.  I'd love to know how it struck you.

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Goodreads giveaway winners!  The Goodreads giveaway contest was a lot of fun.  Thanks to author/blogger Erika Dreifus for insisting that I get it started.   In the end, 873 people signed up, and three of them won free books: Melanie Ciaccio of Brandon, Florida; Ken Gilmour of Petersborough, Ontario; and Tasha Mellins-cohen of Bristol, England.  Congrats to Melanie, Ken, and Tasha.

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I'll be on the radio today!  An interview I completed with KUAF radio in Fayetteville, Arkansas will be broadcast today (Oct. 6, 2014) at noon and 7 pm (central time, USA) as part of their daily Ozarks at Large program.   You can listen live via the internet at  If you miss the live broadcast, an archived version should be avaiable soon.   Happy listening!

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My new website!  Dang, I've forgotten to tell blog readers about my new website, gorgeously designed by UCA MFA-er Rebecca Hawkins.  Go to to get the latest news on appearances and or reviews.