In this week's New Yorker,
in a piece called "The Word Shed," Colum McCann writes of his father, a features editor and author, typing away in a shed. McCann, at the time, was a kid. Wanted to play soccer. Didn't pay his father's two-fingered typing much mind.
Until a book his Dad wrote appeared, written for kids, called "Goals for Glory," the story of a boy without much money who dreamed of soccer triumphs. McCann read the story by flashlight, he says. One year later, when the book was published, he took it to school, where his teacher read one chapter per week to McCann and his classmates.
I pick up McCann's telling of this perfect story here:
I will never forget Christopher Howlett, my red-headed desk mate, jumping around like a prayer in an air raid as Mr. Kells reached the final page. Georgie scored the winning goal. The classroom erupted. The kid from my father's shed—that tangle of hair that had somehow sprung up from behind a typewriter ribbon—was carried with us outside the school gates, down Mart Lane, through the swamp, and into the field at the back of Dunnes Stores, where, with a soggy leather ball at our feet, we all became Georgie, at least for a minute or two.
Two days ago, I wrote here
of why I write, of how it calms me, of how it releases me, for a spell, from the world. I'd like to amend that post to say this as well:
I write for that one reader (there need be only one) who may "jump around like a prayer in an air raid" while reading toward or listening for the story's end.
Do we love Colum McCann? Oh, yes we do. Do we love his dad? That, too.
(Oh how I came to own three copies of Transatlantic,
and other McCann love.)
My current novel-in-progress will fit a loosely defined literary genre of historical fiction. That is, it will be fiction artistically grounded in a period of American history--an era in the mid-1870s--when an organized labor movement began its contest with the laissez-faire business interests of the period. The story moves through the violent birth and tragic demise of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrant mine workers who struck back at the railroad magnots who owned the mines and the lives of the mineworkers. The railroad owners, often called the 'robber-barons' in American history, also owned the justice system of Pennsylvania at the time, a state where the deep underground anthracite coal mines were fueling American industry. After the robber barons crushed an early attempt by the miners to form a labor union, they embarked on a campaign to exterminate a continued, violent resistance of the Mollies to the desperate wages and deplorable working conditions in the mines.
The Young Molly Maguires was conceived as a YA novel, and looks at the lives of several teen-aged boys and a girl, the sons and a daughter of Molly families in a local mine patch of the Pennsylvania mountains. I'd done a fair amount of reading as a boy about Irish immigrant life, and whatever I could find about the Mollies. In those days without the internet and its search engines there wasn't much, but enough to whet the appetite of a boy for reading about avengers of impossible causes. There was even a Sherlock Holmes story that revolved around the existence of the Mollies. A lot of the early stuff portrayed the Mollies as a totally villainous band of outlaws, and the newspapers of the times described them as worse than the secret society of Thugs in India, robbers and assassins devoted to the goddess, Kali. Heady stuff, but that sort of press coverage effectively distracted readers from sympathetic concern for the desperate attempts of workers to wrest a living wage from the robber barons.
More objective and factual information about the working conditions and lives of the mineworkers became available from newspaper articles and essays written by labor union leaders following the failed efforts of the earlier union organizers. By then, the Mollies were finished, and the immigrant waves had shifted to new arrivals from Eastern Europe. Labor conditions were still very harsh, but they were beginning to improve as union organizing grew nationwide. The most thorough and engaging documentary book I have read on the time of the Mollies was written by Kevin Kenny, a professor of history, titled, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, and published in 1998. For general coal mining lore, I have been a geotechnical engineer and have worked in underground coal mines. I did some research on the older equipment and techniques, and by 2000, I was ready to begin a first draft of my Mollies novel.
I thought it was an important point for me to keep in mind, relative to all such intriguing old and new data sources, to use only as much historical data as might enhance the 'fictional dream' (as in The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner) for my novel. There is a recent Writer's Chronicle essay (Sep. 2014) by Debra Spark, Raiding the Larder--Research in Fact-Based Fiction, which addresses the point. Among the ideas Spark discusses is... when it comes to fiction, information is only interesting because it is part of the story, because it has an emotional or narrative reason for being, and, Indeed all the research for authenticity can get in your way...and not just because it's a time suck. Colum McCann distinguishes between what is true--or perhaps what is actual--and what is honest in fiction. Similarly, Sparks quotes the author Jim Shepard... you're after a "passable illusion," not the truth. This is fiction, after all. It's a lie. You're just trying to make it convincing." And, discussing author Lily King's use of research for her anthropology-based novel (Euphoria)... the important thing isn't the information but (quoting King) "how you get your imagination to play with all that information."
I have a final draft of my Mollies novel about ready for review. I've considered the possibility of submitting it through the traditional publishing route, but I'm getting old and do not relish wading through that long and often disparaging process. Alternately, I had a thoroughly satisfying experience with self-publishing my first YA novel with Amazon, and I might go that route again with this one. If there are any professional book reviewers (newspapers, YA groups) among readers of this blog who might be interested in providing a no-cost review, with your permission to quote, I would be pleased to hear from you through the 'comments' link below.
|50 Book Pledge | Book #13: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
On Monday, February 13, 2012, Seth Godin published a piece entitled “The End of Paper Changes Everything“ for The Domino Project. The premise of the piece was that “[n]ot just a few things, but everything about the book and the book business is transformed by the end of paper.” In fact, Godin boldly declared “the book itself is changed.” He’s absolutely right.
My definition of a book has always revolved around its tangible form. To me, a book is made up of a cover, title, paper, weight. But that’s not going to be the case for much longer. The birth of the e-book forces us to answer Godin’s contentious question: “What makes something a book?”
If we take away a book’s physicality, then what we’re left with is its foundation. The parts that make up a book’s substance. A book will now be defined by its characters, plot, themes, setting, message. Perhaps, a book will become what it was always meant to be: A story.
However, this leads us to yet another conundrum: If a book isn’t bound by the restrictions of its physical form, does that mean its storytelling potential is limitless. You tell me.
Back in mid-April, while living those few glorious days beside the ocean's gentle roar, I was asked some questions about my hoped-for summer reading. Two months have passed, and some of my predictions for myself have held true. Some predictions are still waiting to be fulfilled. Some books were in fact what I hoped they would be. Some (or, to be specific, one) severely disappointed.
This beautiful girl lives, by the way, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She's one of my teaching aides for the upcoming VAST Teacher Institute.
But here is who I was or thought I'd be, in mid-April, when contemplating these questions by the sea.
What are you reading this summer?
I have an exquisite pile of books waiting for me—Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, Katherine Boo’s BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, Adam Gopnik’s WINTER, Loren Eiseley’s ALL THE STRANGE HOURS, and the GRANTA BOOK OF THE IRISH SHORT STORY (edited by Anne Enright and including such gems as the Colum McCann class “Everything in This Country Must”). I like to mix it up—new and old, memoir and fiction.
What was your favorite summer vacation?
Favorite is a hard word for me. Love is easier. I loved my family’s summers at the Jersey shore when I was a kid and my father taught me how to dig for the clams with our toes. I loved Prague and Seville with my husband and son. And last summer I fell head over heels for Berlin. Anybody would.
What’s your favorite book about summer?
Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD isn’t about summer, per se. But all of its most lush and important parts happen within and under the summer heat.
What was your favorite summer reading book as a kid?
How boring, how obvious, how true to admit that it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY that enchanted me, again and again, as I sat collecting sun on my face with a piece of tin.
What is your favorite beach read?
I never read on the beach. I walk and look for dolphins. I read at night, when my body is still.
What’s the last book you devoured on a long flight?
The last time I was on a long flight I re-read BOOK OF CLOUDS by Chloe Aridjis. I was glad I did. I took off from Heathrow. I landed in Philadelphia. And in between I’d lived Berlin.
What’s your go-to book to read when you know you only have a few uninterrupted moments of peace?
I read Gerald Stern’s poems. They fix my migraines.
What’s a great book about discovery or travel to read on a long road trip over several days?
Steinbeck often works.
What would you re-read?
I will be re-reading Alyson Hagy’s BOLETO when it comes out in May from Graywolf. I read it in galleys, my Christmas Day present to myself. I was literally jumping off the cou
What makes for urgent historical fiction? Having pondered the issue while writing my own backward-glancing novels, I decided to tackle the question for Printers Row/Chicago Tribune
and see what some careful consideration might teach me.
I'm grateful, as always, for the privilege of time and space in that wonderful publication.
My piece, which reflects on all historical fiction (which is to say no boundaries between Adult and Young Adult) begins like this:
“There is no real anonymity in history,” Colum McCann writes in the acknowledgments of TransAtlantic,his gorgeous time traveler of a book.
No anonymity. No facelessness. No oblivion.
Life is specific, and so is history. It’s emergent, conditional, personal, and absurd.
Why, then, does so much historical fiction land like a brick, with a thud? Why does it hint of authorial Look what I know, See how I found out? Why do so many writers of historical fiction seem to prefer the long way around the heart of the story? Why ignore the truth that the best historical fiction is as insistent as now?
And continues here.
In Alaska, a new friend asks me what I am reading and I say Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See.
I show her the book's first page, and she says, "Read it to me. Out loud." I demur. She insists. I read. In the belly of the boat while the glacial mountains float by. "Leaflets," I say, reading the chapter title. Then:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
I hear my own breath catch. I look up into Kristi's face. She isn't sure, quite, about the passage I've read, wants to know why it has enchanted me. I read phrases out loud again, verbs, that word incendiary
webbed into the lush lyric of the cartwheels, the flutter. How can you speak about what you love? How can you convey the genius of Anthony Doerr, who has never been more genius than this new novel of his—541 pages long, ten years in the making, and it reads too fast, you could read it in a day, you cannot read it in a day, for there will be nothing like it again or soon. Doerr is like Ondaatje, Doerr is like McCann, Doerr is like McDermott, Doerr is like Hagy, Doerr is a writer, pure.
And this new book—about a blind girl in France and a smart boy in Germany and the war that brings them together but only after terrible journeys and terrible losses and only for a moment—this new book is wrenching and glorious. Wrenching first. Glorious because of its deep and tender soul. Because Doerr embraces life even in the midst of dying. Because Doerr inclines toward science as he writes his art, which is to say that he inclines toward the curious mysteries of our world. Snails. A massive diamond. Electromagnetic waves. The cell that divides and divides again, until it is a human, howling.
I love this book. I believe in it, wholeheartedly. I believe in Doerr. Why do books still wear labels—YA or A, historical or contemporary, literary or not? Banish them. Now. Anyone who loved The Book Thief
will be astonished and grateful for this book. Anyone who swoons over an Ondaatje sentence will recognize the power here. Anyone who wishes to return to France or Germany at the time of a devastating war will be returned in a fresh way, an eyes wide-open way.
Anyone who reads will emerge brokenhearted but also grateful that Doerr doesn't just break our hearts. In surprising and redeeming ways, he heals them, too.
Joseph Dorazio, a poet and friend, alerted me to a recent Wall Street Journal article titled "A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight" (Robert Lee Holz, Science Journal, June 19, 2009). There's an emerging science of epiphany, apparently. There's proof that daydreaming matters.
"Sudden insights," Holz tells us, "are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically."
Eureka moments, Holz reports, are accompanied by "a distinctive flash of gamma waves emanating from the brain's right hemisphere, which is involved in handling associations and assembling elements of a problem." Moreover, in EEG-assisted research scientists have seen that "that tell-tale burst of gamma waves was almost always preceded by a change in alpha brain-wave intensity in the visual cortex, which controls what we see. They took it as evidence that the brain was dampening the neurons there similar to the way we consciously close our eyes to concentrate."
Well, now, I like this, and Joseph knew that I would. I like it because in my memoir, Seeing Past Z, I made a long argument for the value of daydreaming—for giving kids room to imagine. I like it because I spent much of yesterday blanketed into a couch, trying to see the next scene in the novel I am writing. My thoughts were uncontainable. I could not keep them tethered. They wound in and out of the sound of rain, through conversations I'd been having, through images of my past, through the old newspaper stories I've lately been reading. Anyone trying to measure my thought's progress would have given up and left me for useless (I was about to do the same, just ask Reiko, who rescued me with a mid-daydreaming email) when, all of a sudden, I had a breakthrough on the novel I am writing. I felt the bright burst of gamma waves.
The novel inched forward.
This coming week, on Tuesday, one of my very favorite authors, Colum McCann, is releasing his fifth novel, Let the Great World Spin. Few authors trust their imagination, their process, as thoroughly as the entirely lovable, provocatively talented McCann, and I urge you to visit his website so that you might learn about this book that soon the literarily privileged will be reading. There's a video of McCann talking process on his site (and on Amazon.com). He's the real thing—aching and wanting like the rest of us, but somehow always pushing through. He's a writer worth listening to.
Every now and then (wait: that would be more than every now and then) I get myself into literary trouble. This holiday weekend I did it again. In the early hours of each day I was at work on this wild mash of an adult novel—a scene involving, among other things, a mind in the midst of repair. In the afternoons I was reviewing the final edits for the YA novel set in Juarez, The Heart is Not a Size. At one point I was answering questions about Nothing but Ghosts, and always, always, I was fighting for the time to read Colum McCann novel, Let the Great World Spin.
I was, in other words, all kaleidoscoped with voice and place and desperate to get traction.
I don't typically seek out such collisions, but when they happen, I try to learn from them. I study the first-person present voice, for example, for fault lines (when does it fail? what happens when it gets pushed too far? what happens when a story is a was and not an is?). I weigh interior monologues against dialogue chains against the power of the omniscient narrator, and decide: what yields, what confines, what exacerbates? I ask myself how I might have approached a scene in the McCann book (McCann's book begins with the famed 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers, a story also richly told in a documentary I recently watched, "Man on a Wire"), and then I try to imagine what McCann might have done had he chosen to weave insanity inside his book, or a south-of-the-border squatter's village, or a garden. What would McCann do with a garden?
As writers we are never finished; we never know enough. We write each book as if it is our first and also our last, and when we are brave, we go back and look over our own shoulders and ask, What might we have done right there to make this a better book?
We are always desperate to write the better book.
I first became aware of the power of that one word ruin when reading the poetry of Gerald Stern. It seems the very opposite of beauty, and yet how close the two words are often found on a page—how near and next of kin are beauty and ruin. Yesterday, reading Colum McCann on the train, there was that word again, often. When Michael Ondaatje speaks the word it is all shush and reverence.
"When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future," Christopher Woodward wrote in In Ruins.
Is that how it is for you, or is it just this thing that happens to the incurably love-riddled melancholy?
The National Book Award Finalists were announced and there are some surprises in the fiction category. Lydia Millet and Junot Diaz were a part of the judges panel and some big names were absent from the nominations. Richard Russo, Lorrie Moore, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers and Jonathan Lethem were absent from the list. Paul Theroux’s son Marcel was nominated as well as Colum McCann. They even nominated a book from a college press: American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Cambell.
American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
In Other Rooms, Other Wonder by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Far North by Marcel Theroux
Let the Great World Spin and Lark and Termite got the best reviews this year, but it will probably be McCann’s year. Far North is an apocalyptic story in a which a woman sheriff patrols a desolate hardened landscape. American Salvage are short stories about tough working class people and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stories are about modern day Pakistan.
Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook by David M. Carroll
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species by Sean B. Carroll
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
The Poison King: The Life and legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles
Versed by Rae Armantrout
Or to Begin Again by Ann Lauterbach
Speak Low by Carl Phillips
Open Interval by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop
Young People’s Literature:
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
Snitches by David Small
Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor
Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia
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It’s been a busy week around these parts, with Sarah Palin’s book hitting the shelves; publishers ignoring potential breakout hits in a neverending search for obvious frontlist; and debate on Harlequin’s branching out into self-publishing territory. We answered questions on fiction credentials and platform building; admitted to guilty pleasure reading; explained publishing; practically wrote your letter to Santa for you; analyzed the reading habits of youth; asked for short story suggestions; and Chasya told you why she’s here in the first place.
Elsewhere in the blogosphere, the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog posted a covers contest so challenging that even previous winners Jim and I couldn’t get ‘em all. (Seriously, people, what are #2 and #4? They haven’t posted the answers yet, and it’s driving me a bit nuts.) They also interviewed a seriously awesome 4-year-old on his love of books and monsters. Everyone talked about the eminently deserving Colum McCann’s win of the National Book Award. Eric at Pimp My Novel pointed out that we’re writing a lot of books about people’s daughters lately. Michael Cairns at PersonaNonData analyzed e-book pricing. The author behind Belle de Jour, blog-turned-book-turned-TV-show about a prostitute in London, turned out to be a research scientist. And Nathan Bransford made a pretty compelling argument for the eventual supremacy of e-books because people gravitate toward efficiency (on the one hand, I dream about one day having a home library with rolling ladders to reach the higher shelves; on the other, I’m kind of an efficiency nerd).
And now I’m off to figure out how to efficiently fit a library large enough to require rolling ladders in a New York City apartment.
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Oh, jeez. The New York Times has released their list of 100 Notable Books of 2009. As is always the case when this comes out, I feel a touch overwhelmed. It’s exciting to know that there are always more great books out there to be read, but at times it gets a bit daunting that you can never even hope to catch up. Or is that just me?
I already have Let the Great World Spin and The Year of the Flood set aside for my holiday break reading. And I want to read Half-Broke Horses and Wolf Hall. And Follow Me sounds fascinating. Ack!
Anyone else excited or frustrated by year end lists? See any titles that for sure should be skipped?
Early in the Rutgers-Camden workshop we reflected on the auguring power of literary lists—what they can tell us about a story not-yet-unfolded, what they teach us about voice. We used, as our exemplars, the opening pages of Colum McCann's Dancer
, the extraordinary yield in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
, and the evocative early pages of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning
. We heard:
What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris:
ten one-hundred-franc bills held together in a plastic band;
a packet of Russian tea;
... daffodils stolen from the gardens in the Louvre causing the gardeners to work overtime from five until seven in the evening to make sure the beds weren't further plundered;
... death threats;
and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.
(McCann, extracted from a much longer list)
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.
(O'Brien, and this is merely the beginning of his brilliant catalog)
These are the things I packed:
— Twelve blank notebooks (paper is more expensive in Japan, or so I'm told);
— Three hundred tablets of Motrin IB and a bottle of 240 of the world's heaviest multivitamins;
— Forty-eight AA batteries in case my tape recorder dies mid-interview once a week, every week, for the six months I'll be away from home;
— Twenty-four copies of my first novel to give as omiyage;
— Two never-opened textbooks on how to read kanji.
(Rizzuto, a list then answered by a second titled: These are the things I know:)
All three lists featured here sit toward or at the very start of books—before we know plot or meaning, before w
Does it count as daily blogging if today looks a lot like yesterday? Been running around in circles since the morning and find myself, once again, using my first chance to sit down to reach out to you all, with the get-to-the-event-clock ticking down. This one is at my local neighborhood bookstore, Greenlight Bookstore, where [...]