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

A Quote I Love

I have so many writing notebooks from over the years, and every now and then I love to go through them and see what jumps out at me as possible inspiration. I especially like to write down quotes from other writers, or lines from books or essays or short stories.  Here is a favorite one from Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) that I just unearthed from an old notebook. Since many of my short stories involve dead husbands, I particularly love this: “The best first thing to do, when you’ve got a dead body and it’s your husband’s on the kitchen floor, and you don’t know what to do about it, is to make yourself a good strong cup of tea.”

Perfect British understatement…

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!


The Brain Is A Really Weird Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain for the past five years or so.  Something lucky, before I begin: My brain still works pretty well.  I do crossword puzzles, I am physically active, and I read and write all the time.  Even so, there are no guarantees.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s don’t care all that much about what you’ve done to stave them off.  To say nothing of brain injuries.

Here are some of the reasons I think about the brain – maybe more than the average person. First – one of my sisters suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago, and I have been very involved in her rehabilitation, and in her life since her accident.  This is a sister I never had a close relationship with, but who I would now kill for.  This is basically the premise of a memoir I just completed about being a sister.  Second, my father died of complications from dementia, a harrowing experience I wouldn’t wish on any family.  Third, I started writing a novel that was based on the premise that you could “freeze” your brain (or something like that), and “live” forever.  Or, at least your brain could.  I got well into this novel until I hit a wall and set the book aside for a while.  But in the meantime, I did a ton of research into the brain.

So, this is a subject I obviously find fascinating.  Just recently I read a brand new memoir called Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes On My Dementia by Gerda Saunders.  It is an amazingly raw and tender and sad and joyous story.  I had originally heard the author a few weeks ago being interviewed on NPR, and immediately went to the library to get the book.

A few out of many memorable passages:  “I write to remember, to inhabit for a while, my earliest self…”  And, “I convinced myself that shining light into the lonely and scary place of my mother’s dementia – and mine- could possibly be of value to other people who live with dementia, whether it’s their own or that of someone they love.”

I highly recommend finding the interview on NPR, and also reading the book.  And if you can bear it, and haven’t done so yet, read Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and see the movie by the same name (with Julianne Moore).  I know it’s hard to talk about this, and read about it, but the more we face these issues with some type of understanding (and even humor and grace) the better equipped we might be to survive with our humanity intact, and maybe even enhanced.

(I also shared an essay I wrote about my father’s dementia in a post on 4/27/17.)