Intransigent, bloody-minded, immovable—
—unswayable, willful, unmanageably selfish—
I’d rather not just now.
Wait—I want to talk about how stubbornness is a trait of poems.
You’ve got an attitude now.
Here it is, then: Each poem’s like a little stubborn person.
Why don’t you expand it?
I hardly think your thoughts would be hugely different from mine.
Quite the contrary. I’m into seriousness and plan to stay there for an hour or so.
Each poem is a little willful being. Like a person, a poem is conceived as a bristly, bursting whole. It wants flesh and daylight. The poem may not be understood or welcomed by the poet. Nevertheless, poet and poem find themselves searching one another…..immersing themselves in themselves…..plotting, bucking, wiggling, debating.
I mean—like us—poem and poet feel that they are two beings, but in their best wrestling times they work together as one. They adjust to being one, midwifing the poem, getting it to breathe on its own. The poet has lost an ego in those glorious moments.
Among other reasons, to winningly distill wisdom.
It may be becoming that, though I love the publicness, the sociableness, of plays, and I yearn to write wise plays.
Yes. And it has been thrilling as well as sometimes frustrating. Fortunately for me, research for a play set in Elizabethan England has freed me somewhat from the constraints of present-day word use. That is, several Elizabethan poets and playwrights stretched and flexed the use of words. They imagined words playing wildly with one another in order to fix a point in hearers’ heads. An example from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, scene ii:
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.
From Merchant of Venice, Act V, scene i, Lorenzo to Jessica:
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Oh yes. Michael Alexander translating Beowulf [Alexander’s The First Poems in English, Penguin Classics, 2008]. Here, lines 208-217, page 77, of Beowulf:
The prince had already picked his men
from the folk’s flower, the fiercest among them
that might be found. With fourteen men,
sought sound-wood: sea-wise Beowulf
led them right down to the land’s edge.
Time running on, she rode the waves now
hard in by headland. Harnessed warriors
stepped on her stem; setting tide churned
sea with sand, soldiers carried
bright mail-coats to the mast’s foot,
war-gear well wrought; willingly they shoved her out,
thorough-braced craft, on the craved voyage.
Definitely. Yeats. For the lift, passion, lilt, music and messages.
And Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill—leaping with joy and sharp regret, looking back and into his life. Excerpts from Fern Hill:
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away
. . .
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder
. . .
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
. . .
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days . . .
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
No, thank you!
January 28, 2010
Tell me about yourself.
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and I maintain a strong connection to my southern roots. That history is my foundation.
January 28, 2010
JC – I want to take a moment to remember the fine historian Howard Zinn. I’m certain that many readers of 3G1B have read his work over the years, and The People’s History of the United States, among numerous other fine works, was one of the great readable histories of our country, long before Good Will Hunting gave it the legs to reach the masses.
I had occasion to spend time with Howard once, many years ago. I was just graduated from college, working in a bookstore (what else, right?) in Athens, GA. A customer mentioned that Zinn was coming to speak at the University of Georgia in a couple of weeks, but that no one was making any effort to sell books for the event. After several fruitless calls to the university to make contact, I called information in Cambridge, MA, got his phone number, and called him directly.
That’s the kind of man he was: listed in the phone directory, willing to speak to anyone. He suggested that I pick him up from the airport in Atlanta and give him a lift to Athens, and in return he would sign books at the store for an hour. Who would refuse?
HZ refused me when I offered to grab his bag for him – back when non-fliers could still go to meet a plane at the gate – and when we climbed in my little blue Geo Metro, he was as personable and friendly as anyone could have hoped, but even more, he was interested. He was instantly invested in the situations of the university, its students, and the surrounding community, asking pointed questions about race relations, about the state of the recently proposed grad student union, and about the social state in the local community.
Later that evening, when he spoke before a full house at the college, he stood before the crowd and spoke eloquently about injustice in America, how it persists, and how it could be combatted locally. He had clearly considered our conversation, how the issues reflected locally and nationally, and integrated them into his speech (when he had the time, I don’t know).
A few years ago, perhaps 13 or 14 years after our first meeting, I saw him again, this time at a NEIBA convention in Boston. He recalled our first meeting and asked if I was up to date with the current situation in Athens. I wasn’t, having left Georgia 8 years earlier, but the exchange indicated something to me about the man. While a fine academic, a consummate scholar, and a damn good lefty, he was also thoroughly engaged, kind, and attentive to the world and the people around him. Something to which we ought all aspire.
Rest in peace, Dr. Zinn.
Weren’t you just there, asking me?
To buy Judy Prince’s Poems2, please email Robin Hamilton, publisher of Phantom Rooster Press.
In photo of Judy Prince, the “Sunset I,” oil painting is by Patti Meyers, at London Square Gallery, Norfolk, VA.
January 27, 2010
Ever since I’ve been allowed to hurl my musings at TNB, expanding my readership beyond my usual four, now that I have the potential for an audience of at least five, my brain has been taking it out on me.
I am not in my comfort zone. I have been skillfully and assiduously avoiding a public face on the internet since, oh, forever. I’ve written online extensively, but my name has not been attached. I have kept the innocent and the guilty alike hidden in my dedication to anonymity. I’m comfortable with that.
Perhaps it’s my name. If I didn’t have such a whacked-out name, I wouldn’t think about it so much. Search for “Angela Smith” on the intarwebs, you potentially face a long slog finding the “Angela” you’re interested in. But “Quenby Moone?” Yeah. There’s only one of those.
Megan DiLullo and I were discussing my future here on TNB, and she told me I should get on Facebook. It was a good way for people to contact me, make a face for myself. Really? Why in God’s name would I want to do that? So my psychotic ex-boyfriend can find me and ask me how my kid is?
But Megan is nothing if not clever, so I entertained that she might have a point. I’ve been pretty well-insulated until now, but if I had any hope of having a readership beyond my father, who has a genetic investment in my successes and failures, and my other three (possibly paid) devotees to my written brain queefs, I would probably have to go on Facebook and mingle.
I summoned no small part of bravery and signed up for an account. And I totally punked out, since I went by my white trash handle, Tawny Bouté. I poked Megan to show that I had the guts to be there, and then I poked my husband. I had two Facebook friends.
Not bad, really.
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how someone I haven’t spoken to in 22 years found me on there, buried under my white trash nom de plume, but there it was: a friend request from someone I hardly remember. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to have him as my friend, I just didn’t know why he wanted to be mine. I panicked. I worried about it. I thought about “friending” him (a gerund which drives me nuts), and realized that it was the first step down a long road of friends I barely know all friending each other. It’s so weird, and nosey, and slightly voyeuristic.
But I know that it’s great, too. I know that people have discovered each other and re-kindled long dormant relationships to the benefit of all parties. And why am I so vain as to believe anyone would even care about finding me again? What makes me so special? Who, exactly, do I think I am? Miley Fucking Cyrus?
Then the self-flagellation set in.
So what if this was it? What if I had my two friends and died tomorrow, the pathetic woman with only her husband and her fellow TNB’er there to witness I was ever on Facebook at all? “I’d better go get some more friends,” I thought.
I found one hidden under a pseudonym and gave him a webby shout. Now I had three.
As a percentage, it was a marked improvement.
But what if one of my real-world friends discovered that I wasn’t their Facebook friend? Maybe they wouldn’t realize that I only had three Facebook friends, and would think I was actively shunning them. Would they de-friend me in real life? Maybe I should go and find everyone I ever knew and make them my friend. But what if they don’t want me as their friend? What if I discover I’m an undesirable on Facebook? What if I am actually a member of the lowest rung of the Facebook caste system: The Untouchable?
I couldn’t believe this was the inner monologue of someone who turned forty this year. Tawny deleted her account five days after she created it.
But the fact remains: Quenby Moone has never put a name upon her writing, and now she’s been graciously accepted into the cabal of “The Nervous Breakdown.” And my personal masochism is no longer about Facebook, but about what to publish here. “I’ll publish one about my boobs,” I’ll think. “Boobs are always a popular subject.” But then I’ll realize someone recently published one about her boobs, and it was probably ten times funnier than the one about my boobs.
“I’ll mix it up; I’ll send the one about the chickens.” But maybe I’m the only person who thinks a quixotic relationship with barnyard fowl is funny. “Maybe the one about my nervous breakdown? That would at least be name-appropriate. But maybe cliché. Maybe too cute and affected: ‘See what I did there? Huh? I wrote about a nervous breakdown on a site called “The Nervous Breakdown?” Clever, huh?'”
On and on it goes. So here we are. At the end of a piece about neither boobs nor chickens nor nervous breakdowns, but about my inability to decide what to publish on “The Nervous Breakdown.”
Think of it as an exercise in post-post-modernism.
Love the Hustle Or: How to Let Go of Your Feelings of Injustice and Have a Good Time Selling Yourself
By Shya Scanlon, Guest Columnist
On September 24th, 2005, a long-overdue one-way ticket landed me in New York City where I’d pledged to seriously pursue a writing career. I found a tiny hole in the Lower East Side, and an email I sent on October 10th reads, “I’m sitting alone in a dark apartment in the middle of one of the most intense and social cities in the world. What the hell is wrong with me?”
My schedule those days involved coming home from my job—working as a copywriter in an office on Broad Street in front of which bomb-sniffing dogs and policemen wearing bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles paraded all day—pouring myself a glass of single malt whiskey, and standing, not sitting, in the kitchen and typing furiously at what eventually became the collection of prose poetry called In This Alone Impulse.
The night I sent that email, like most nights that winter, I was terribly alone, I was half drunk, and I was suffering from an overwhelming mixture of both over and under exposure—close enough to my dreams to be truly frightened by them. I was, in other words, living something closely resembling the idealized image I’d half-consciously carried in my mind about the life of a writer since first wanting to become one.
When you think of the writing life, many things come to mind, both good and bad: isolation, frustration, intensity, investigation, exploration, imagination… booze. If you’re lucky, of course, these things are accompanied by publication, recognition, accolades, and the like. But I would be very surprised if many aspiring authors put things like networking or community building, or—dare I say it here?—hustling on the list. Even near the bottom. That spot is reserved for “dying of syphilis.”
And yet, as many writers realize, it is a hustle. Of course, fortune has always favored the bold in some way, but I’m going to project a little here and say it’s difficult not to feel like small press and online publishing has turned those words of encouragement into an unnerving reality. The literary community made possible by constant and easy online interaction is a boon to the aspiring author in many ways—this web site is a perfect example of a valuable resource that simply couldn’t have existed ten years ago. But it can also be quite insular and cliquish. I know I’m not alone in wondering, from time to time, whether we’re unwittingly creating an environment in which artists are rewarded for their social skills instead of their art.
Not to say self-promotion is always and only met with praise. As a natural and healthy response to the saturation of social media—and the sometimes devious advertisement deals that support the platform—people are becoming, to use appropriately reductive marketing jargon, savvy consumers, and this means you’re bound to attract some whistle-blowers if what you’re doing seems inauthentic or overtly self-promotional.
Like, say, writing an article that thinly disguises a goal of self-promotion with “thoughtful consideration” of the “larger issues at stake.”
So there are the self-promoters—people who seem to take to this system quite naturally (If you haven’t thought about Tao Lin yet while reading this, you obviously haven’t heard of him)—and there are the whistle-blowers. But there are also many writers who resent the fact that they’re increasingly expected to hustle. Is this what we signed up for?
No one my age signed up for developing a readership through blogging for the simple reason that blogging didn’t exist when I was cobbling together my fantasy writer’s life. Someone growing up today, on the other hand, might naturally incorporate such activities into their vision. But that doesn’t help me.
What helps me is to conceive of the activities a bit differently. To use the same kind of attitudes and insights that inspire normal, non-literary pursuits like “introducing friends to one another,” and “throwing parties,” and “streaking through densely populated urban areas at noon.” In our hyper-mediated environment, there’s a kind of blurring of lines that occurs, and to see it clearly you have to take a step back. Does the writing life end when you put down the pen? Close your eyes and concentrate on that fantasy you once had. Get up from the awesome imaginary desk and walk out of the room. Leave your apartment and walk down the street. Ring your friend’s buzzer and say you’re there for dinner. Hang out. Chat.
I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that we’re competing for attention with an increasing number of authors—more and more of whom are starting out as “savvy consumers” who know their way around networking technology. People who read and/or use this site are likely among them. But if you’re still feeling uncomfortable with your new role as writer, marketer, promoter and salesman of your work, it might help to take a simple look around at how you conduct yourself in other parts of your life—things you do even without thinking about it—give them a fancy word like “tactics” and incorporate them into an even fancier word: “strategy.”
Currently, if someone is familiar with my name, chances are good that the phrase “Forecast 42” isn’t far from it in their mind. The 42 Project brought together a host of literature enthusiasts in a co-publishing venture that I think most people found fun, and not a few found inspiring enough to begin similar projects of their own. To be sure, it also caused some backlash here and there from people who turned their noses up at the undeniable stench of self-promotion. And yes, I had my moments of doubt along the way, too. Was it anything more than a stunt? Well, it really didn’t involve anything unfamiliar to anyone who’s planned a party big enough to merit inviting people they don’t really know. Similarly, I met a lot of interesting people in the process, and formed deeper connections with those who I already knew.
I’ll soon be organizing a book release event for In This Alone Impulse, and for it I’m gathering as many writers as I can, each of who will read a brief excerpt of the work. I can’t say I haven’t considered the fact that this will ensure that the audience is at least as large as the number of writers I can involve—and I’m sure a few people will smell a scheme. But the idea began with an authentic interest in bringing people together, in throwing an interesting party, and in full frontal nudity. I think people will get it, and if all goes well, I’ll organize similar “group readings” in a few other cites across the country. It’s a small but significant twist on the standard reading—enough, hopefully, to make it into something memorable and valuable for all people involved.
It’s a long way from the dark apartment in which the poems were created. But because I love the poems, I want them to enjoy a little exposure. And because I love people, I want to introduce them to these poems. Am I selling myself? Sure. But if I didn’t try to build a readership or share what I love, I’d be selling myself short.
Shya Scanlon’s work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, IN THIS ALONE IMPULSE, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010.
In 2009, his novel FORECAST was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in spring, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com
You heard him, WordHustlers! Shya has perfected the art of hustling his way to success. Why not submit to our Literary Storm Novel Contest and win the chance to be published by Shya’s publishers, Flatmancrooked? Get your work out there and market yourself with passion, panache, and wit. We know you’ve got it in you. And we’re here to help.
January 27, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen of the court, all rise for the noble and knowledgeable Danielle Chiotti, literary agent at Upstart Crow Literary and esteemed judge of WordHustler’s Literary Storm Novel Contest (NEWSFLASH: due to popular demand, we’ve extended the deadline to February 26, 2010! You’ve still got time to submit!). Danielle is passionate about great writing, finding amazing new clients, and helping writers succeed in the publishing industry.
Luckily for us, Danielle made time in her busy schedule to sit down and discuss what draws her to different books, how important the query letter really is, and how she plucks talented writers out of the slush pile. Will you be the next gifted scribe to catch her eye?
Read the interview to find out, then polish those manuscripts and send them out!
WordHustler: How did you get your start in the publishing industry?
Danielle Chiotti: Completely by accident, actually. I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, and spent a year waitressing before I basically stumbled into a job doing reader’s reports for a small literary agency. A few months later, they asked me if I wanted to come in and learn about being an agent. I had no idea what that meant, but I thought, “Oh, why not?” I’ve been working in publishing ever since.
WH: You’ve worked all over the publishing industry, at places like Kensington Publishing and Adams Media. What is the main difference between editing and agenting, and why did you decide to make the switch?
DC: Literary agents have a lot more autonomy than editors do; we’re not beholden to a certain set of parameters for publishing a book. I loved my work as an editor, but there were always so many rules about what I could and could not acquire, depending on the needs of the publisher. As an agent, I can truly sign the projects I love–in any area I choose.
WH: What draws you to a fiction book? Non-fiction?
DC: Goodness. The obvious answer for each of these questions is: Good writing!
For fiction, it’s really all about the voice. I’m drawn to stories in which the voice grabs you in the first line and doesn’t let go. The three main narrators of Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP, for example, just blew me away. I also read Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE over the holidays, and I just can’t stop thinking about Olive. Such a complex, flawed, and interesting character. Of course, plot is also important in fiction, but most of all, I look for characters who are so interesting and unique that they could be telling me about something really boring–like wallpaper– and I’d be positively riveted. I also tend to favor strong, flawed female characters, and fish-out-of-water stories.
For nonfiction, I tend toward narrative that explores a previously unexplored topic, or that brings a fresh take to a perennial topic. For example, Michael Chabon’s MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS is certainly well-trod territory, as far as “dad lit” goes, but so beautifully and heartbreakingly written that the topic doesn’t feel stale. I also adore food memoir.
WH: You also represent a fair amount of YA authors. Do you think the YA world is more challenging than the adult world?
DC: I think each has its challenges, and I don’t want to say that one is more difficult than the other. What I will say is that since YA has been the category “du jour” for so long, it’s getting crowded, and the competition is fierce.
WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today? (Obviously you can include people you rep…it’s only fair!)
DC: Of course all of the authors I represent are my favorite authors! They are an enormously talented group of people. I’m honored to be working with them, and I’m always thrilled to read what they’re working on next.
My reading tastes range far and wide. Anyone who has read my profile on the Upstart Crow site knows of my undying devotion to E.B. White and CHARLOTTE’S WEB, which is pretty much the book that started it all for me. I’ve read Michael Chabon’s THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH so many times that the pages are falling out. I think I mentioned earlier that I adore food memoir, and so I’m a devoted fan of Ruth Reichl and all of her books, especially COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. I’ve also always had a soft spot for retired romance author LaVyrle Spencer; I used to steal her novels from my mother’s bookshelf and sneak them into my room!
WH: What types of books are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?
WH: What’s your take on the publishing industry today? In dire straights or blooming? Both? Neither?
DC: There’s been much debate on the state of the publishing industry today, lots of doomsday speculation about the death of publishing, and even some heated debates about the role of literary agents in an author’s career, especially with the growth in popularity of e-books and the like.
I tend to think that much of the online chatter is just that: chatter. Publishing has proven itself time and time again to be a resilient industry, and though there have certainly been some dark days in the recent past, I’m always amazed by the ability of the industry to pick itself up, dust itself off, readjust, and thrive.
No matter how the content is published in the future, publishers will always be looking for talented authors, and thus authors will always need an advocate to help them navigate the publishing process and think about the trajectory of their career in the long term. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that I remain optimistic about the future of publishing, in whatever form it may take.
WH: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: what percentage of authors that you decide to represent come from the unsolicited submissions?
DC: Oh, are you going to make me do math? No fun! The truth is, the bulk of my current client list has come from unsolicited submissions. I rely very heavily on my unsolicited submissions to find talent, and I give them very serious consideration. I’ve found (and signed and sold) some absolutely amazing writers as a result.
WH: How important is the query letter? Do you want any sample pages or does the query make enough of a first impression?
DC: Every agent seems to have a different take on query letters. For me, a clearly-written, professional query letter is incredibly important. That said, it’s nearly impossible to gauge a project’s true worth from a query letter. So at Upstart Crow, we’ve made it part of our submissions policy that writers are invited to send along the first 20 pages of their manuscript with their query letter. For more information and a complete set of submissions guidelines, visit here.
WH: What are three things in a query that make you want to read more?
DC: Ah, this is an interesting question. I know that most writers would prefer that I answer in absolutes, but the more queries I read and consider, the more convinced I become that queries are not at all a black and white issue. But in an effort to be specific, the three things in a query letter than make me want to read more are:
1. A concise summary of the book.
2. A unique/compelling premise.
3. An indication that the writer as thoroughly researched my areas of interest/background and feels we’d be a good match. It’s pretty easy to tell when a writer hasn’t done their homework and doesn’t really know a lot about the agency or my specific interests as an agent.
But if I can be totally honest here, reading a query or sample pages is kind of like going on a blind date–it’s all about the spark. When I read a query and sample pages, I’m not only looking for the elements I listed above, I’m looking to feel a connection to the writing, the story, and most of all–the characters. Call me a hopeless romantic, but when I read a query or sample pages, I’m looking to fall in love at first sight.
WH: What are three things that let you know this project/writer isn’t for you?
DC: 1. A query that tries to be too flashy/stylish, but that leaves me with too many unanswered questions about the story. It’s best to be concise and up front about the story in your query letter, and to summarize it to the best of your ability.
2. Unoriginal or “copycat” ideas that are riding a current trend (vampires, for instance!).
3. Anything that is in the mystery/thriller category, or poetry or short stories.
WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers out there?
DC: Writing your novel and then querying agents is a long process, but you have to keep the faith that something will happen for you. Be persistent and constantly dedicated to your craft!
Don’t ever stop reading, don’t ever stop asking questions, don’t ever stop striving to push your writing to the next level. Complacency is the enemy of any writer.
Also, while Internet is a great resource–for networking, researching and the like–I find that many writers are using it for a diversion these days. If you’re spending more time on writing websites, message boards, and Twitter than you are on your own writing, you should set aside time to unplug and get back into it.
WH: Do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there and into your hands, professionally and effectively?
DC: Of course I do! It’s a most excellent resource for writers. Good luck, and write well!
We find the judge GUILTY of having amazing taste and publishing wisdom to spare! So you heard her, Hustlers- polish those manuscripts, perfect those queries, and work on getting your projects 100% up to snuff. Then send them out digitally via our brand-spankin’ new Digital Submission System which helps you find contact info and track all of your submissions in one easy place.
Yes, we said ALL of your submissions because everyone knows that getting published is a numbers game. Aim to have ten submissions out and in play at ALL TIMES. Doing this ensures that writing success is just within reach. Don’t forget to submit your novel to our Literary Storm Novel Contest as well! Danielle could very well decide your manuscript is a real WINNER! All hail the judge!
January 27, 2010
JE: All Keith Dixon does is write some of the tensest, most delectably dark character studies out there, in sentences strung as tight as piano wire. Check out Ghostfires, his 2005 debut, a wicked southern gothic-esque crime thriller, which pits father against son, amidst a sordid web of deceit and addiction.
Keith Dixon—The book that made me a reader
We had just moved to our house in rural Pennsylvania, which would make me about nine or ten years old, when I stole my brother’s copy of Where the Red Fern Growsoff his bookshelf—I have no idea where he got it, or if he’d read it, but I do know that I’ve never forgotten it. I can even remember the tactile sense of holding it and staring at the foxed and fouled cover; the image was so haunting I was compelled to pick it up and give it a read.
(This may explain why I’m very particular about the covers of my own books, a real art director’s nightmare—I can’t shake the knowledge that the first book I ever loved might have gone unread if it had a less compelling cover. And in locating a copy of the exact cover my edition had, I was dismayed to find that the new editions have a much more vanilla cover, perhaps to make the book seem less threatening. This is extremely bad.)
I don’t remember too many details of the book—after all, it’s been nearly three decades since I read a word of it, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t remember character names or even whiff on a few elaborations—but two plot points in particular haunt me to this day, and I still marvel at the way I reacted to them. (Spoilers abound below—those of you still planning on reading the book may want to skip.)
Until then I reacted to books as if I were writing a book report about them. “What did you think about it?” one parent would ask, and my answer was always either “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” In short, I had never developed a complicated feeling about a book. I was reading, but I might as well have been painting by numbers.
About midway through Fern, though, I read a scene—and again, I’m going to trust memory, here, and not research the details—in which a boy, not the main character, falls on his own ax. Gruesome—as I recall, the blade goes in his stomach. Fern is clearly a book that grapples with life and death, and the sometimes violent span that occurs between the two, but this scene in particular awoke a sense of horror in me that went far beyond an intellectual understanding that bad things sometimes happen to people. I actually felt it, this time. I remember that I put the book down, went downstairs, and sat in the dining room with my mother. When she got up and left the room, I followed her. After I’d followed her through about five rooms, she turned to me and asked, “Is something wrong?”
I answered that something was, but I didn’t know what, exactly. She suggested I go read a book or something.
Utterly at a loss, I then went back upstairs and read the rest of the book. Those who have read Fern know what it leads to—the death of the two dogs that have been the axis of the narrator’s coming of age. The message is: Now he has experienced the ultimate loss. He has witnessed the death of his youth. He is aware of the sorrow that is indivisible from living, and is no longer innocent. In other words: he’s a grownup. The corollary logic is, of course, that one can never be a complete person without engaging one’s own mortality.
I have never been very good with the idea of brute suffering—I can’t bear to watch animals suffer, something about the fact that they can’t communicate their suffering with others, and invite empathy—and this final scene was its very summit. I remember reacting to the book not with my mind but with my whole body. My skin flushed and my throat tightened up. I couldn’t reason or explain away what I had just experienced.
I went back downstairs, poleaxed into silence, and followed my mother around the house until she asked again, “Is something wrong?”
I began to cry. It just flowed right out. I looked at her and said, “Yes. Yes. But I don’t know what it is.”
It seems obvious to me, now: I had experienced that shiver of universal understanding that comes only from reading a great novel. Where the Red Fern Grows showed me, for the first time, what books can do. I’ve been trying to give that same experience to others all my adult life.
> Lenore Zion is back, and she brought popcorn.
> Richard Cox knows what’s hot.
> Angela Tung knows what’s not.
> Kip & Josie‘s infinite playlist
> Flowers in Simon Smithson‘s hair?
> Zara Potts is so, so sorry.
+ + PLUS + +
> Cadaver Blues is to die for
> Shya & Co. on THE FEED