Denis Johnson: An Appreciation

One of my favorite writers passed away on May 24, 2017 at age 67. I was re-reading his work and came across this review/appreciation that I had written a couple of years ago.

Denis Johnson writes with a unique, confident, and oddly compelling voice in a style that does not fit “normal” criteria for structure, characterization, or narrative plot. Yet, it doesn’t seem to matter.

The eleven linked stories in Jesus’ Son are all narrated by an unnamed protagonist, a young man who lives a grim life of addiction and alcoholism, but who is also somehow funny and likable (to the reader, anyway). He is the ultimate flawed character, and his only redeeming quality throughout these stories is that he knows he’s flawed. Sometimes he tries to remedy this; often he just doesn’t. The writing has a hallucinatory quality to it, a steady stream of the subconscious that is so dead-on and piercing in its observations of surroundings and of the people the protagonist bumps up against. Continue reading

Keep It Real: Edited by Lee Gutkind

Here are some thoughts/notes on writing creative nonfiction, using Lee Gutkind’s excellent book published in 2008, on the subject: Keep It Real. I highly recommend reading it.

Keep It Real, a collection of writings on narrative nonfiction and memoir was compiled by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. The subtitle of the book is Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. I was intrigued by this title because I am very interested in the blurry lines between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe this book would help me to see what those lines are in a way that might help me in my own work. Every time I read fiction I find myself wondering how much of the fiction is from the author’s own life and how much is completely from an author’s imagination. Does it matter?

In Poets & Writers, in an interview of fiction writer Mary Gaitskill, interviewer Nina Shengold notes, “She scatters autobiographical crumbs throughout her fiction.” What makes this autobiographical fiction writing different than creative nonfiction then? In Gutkind’s book he tries to address this, “…the anchoring element of the best creative nonfiction requires an aspect of reportage.” And, “…creative nonfiction…presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Continue reading

Flannery O’Connor: An Appreciation

(After reading Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch, I wrote this appreciation/review.)

I find that there is something inherently satisfying, as a writer, reading about another writer’s life – even when that writer is stratospherically in another universe of literary skill and reputation. And in Brad Gooch’s thorough and admiring 2009 biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (amazingly, the first comprehensive book-length biography of O’Connor), the reader is given a large picture window through which to view the author’s life.

That picture window gives us a view mostly of O’Connor’s life at Andalusia, the family “farm” in Milledgeville, Georgia, where O’Connor lived most of her sadly shortened adult life, and where the author honed her craft through shrewd observation and painstaking work habits. However, biographer Gooch, praised for his previous biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, also gives the reader a comprehensive and fascinating glimpse into O’Connor’s formative childhood, adolescent, and college years. Although it may be that those of us who have never spent any time in the American south are more susceptible to being charmed by southerners and their (to us) quirky lifestyles, family relationships, and un-imitatable ways of speaking. Continue reading

My Best Worst Book Signing

I was talking to a writer friend the other day about book signings. Mainly, what it is about a book in particular that makes the reader even want a writer’s signature on it. We buy tons of things every day that don’t require the maker’s signature. Maybe because a book, like a painting or an original photograph, is considered a work of art? Signatures of famous people in politics are often sought after, and those of athletes on sports memorabilia. But why writers?

When I self-published my novel The Lake Poet in 2001, it was a total DIY operation. I wrote it, edited it, decided on the fonts and the cover, got an ISBN number, wrote for permissions to use a few lines from poems, hired a printer, and it was off to the races. Since my book was a novel (historical fiction) about the town I was living in – Lake Forest, Illinois – I figured I at least had a good base of book-reading and book-buying enthusiasts who would want to read my book.

Also, Ragdale, a world-renowned artists’ community/retreat is located in Lake Forest, and they had kindly allowed me to write much of my book in a small space on their property.
It was off to the races. We have a really great independent bookstore in town, and they kept a steady supply of books. Ragdale hosted a reading and signing for me at the Deer Path Inn, and many friends who were book group members invited me to their book groups. I also marketed my books to local realtors; and the Lake Forest Historical Society, and the local library also made me part of a few community events.

In short, I found myself interacting with a huge swath of the local population. My very first “private reading” was at the beautiful artist studio of my friend Barbara Trentham, who has since passed away. I will never, ever forget the magic of that first reading in that magical space that Barbara had created for local artists.

Oh, one other thing. Neither Facebook or Twitter had even been invented yet. I thought I was pretty hot stuff because I had figured out how to sell my book on Amazon, and I had also set up a Google Blogger account for updates on my book and readings.

Of course I was the person selling my book, arranging signings, keeping track of finances (including payment of taxes as a local “vendor”), and still working on other writing projects. Granted, I didn’t have another job, so I was able to devote time to this that I might not otherwise have had the ability to do.

It may not sound like it, but this was actually fun! What could be better than toting your books around to people who actually wanted to read them? It was a writer’s dream come true. Again, it was because my book filled a niche in the community – a community of readers.

Believe it or not, I quickly sold out of the first printing of 2,000. And then a second printing of another 1,000. I did one last printing of another 1,000, and then decided that would be it. Unless I was able to find an agent to take the book on I was going to call it quits, and move on. I didn’t.

Looking back on that crazy DIY year, I remember how much fun it was, and how supported I felt by a reading community that wanted me to succeed. But the “literary event” that stands out the most, and that I will never, ever forget was when I did a book signing at the local supermarket during their annual Meat Sale.

Now, this was no ordinary Meat Sale. This was a yearly event that normally staid Lake Foresters beat the door down to get to. I didn’t get it, but this market had been selling my books at their cash registers, and I had been steadily replenishing their supplies every few days. (I know, who would have thought. Another note to DIY authors – you have to hustle and get creative in setting up your “distribution network.”)

Back to the meat sale. The store owner had set me up at a rickety card table with a full view of the pandemonium at the meat counter. My sister had suggested I get in on the fun, and had sent me a few ideas for signage: “Don’t be a chicken. Buy my sister’s book!” was one memorable one (I did use it, and got some good laughs). Also, “Meat the Author.”

Customers seemed almost feral in their desire to get their prime steaks at a dollar off per pound. But, hey, what did I care? I was also selling books by the pound. I sold over a hundred that day, and well over a thousand at that grocery store alone over the year I kept it stocked there.

So, go local, if you think you have a supportive base to draw on. Use Facebook and Twitter and all the other great social media tools. Trust me, your readers are dying to “meat” you!