I’ve been writing “creative nonfiction” for years–-my Master’s thesis in poetry, essays (for introspection), freelance articles (for pay), and this blog (for joy)… But I haven’t touched fiction-writing since I was a schoolkid.
Until last summer, when I did.
Not sure exactly why, but this person called Gayla wanted to go whaling, so I let her. And she turned out pretty stubbornly not to fit in to the century in which I’d placed her, so I threw in a little time travel to explain her. She’s a whaler wearing a sports bra instead of a corset—an anomaly in more ways than one.
She’s still growing, and I’m still writing her journey. I’ve been releasing one chapter at a time to a small circle of friends and family who have been reading along (and keeping me writing!) and I got to thinking that it’s the READERS who really make this art form work. If I’m writing in a “black hole” by myself, I’m not going to last for long–and that would be a bummer, because I’d never find out what happens with Gayla.
So I took it into my head to publish as I go, rather than waiting (for what?) to finish this whole tale. Charles Dickens published many of his works as serial stories in the newspapers of his day… I’m no Charles Dickens, but I do have this great medium we call the internet. So here we are.
And I have an idea that blogging about the book as I write it (and as readers receive it) might provide some interesting introspection into my own writing process–so I’m hoping this becomes bigger than just the book.
All that said… I’m launching this book. Before it’s anywhere close to finished. As of this writing I’m at 67,636 words–and I’m not posting all of those today. But I’ll start with Book One and a teaser to Book Two, and I’ll invite you along for the ride. Along for the read.
And none of this is set in stone (I go back to edit as I get to know Gayla and her story) so I very much welcome critique and feedback. In fact, I’m more interested in what doesn’t work than what does–because that’s what’s useful to a writer. I’d love to see my online community function like a larger version of the “workshop” classes I took for my Creative Writing degree. I’d love to grow in my craft and become a better writer. I’d love to see where this story takes me. Will you sail with me? It’s a free book… if you have patience to wait for an ending!
As we were driving to pick up the kids from my Ex’s house yesterday, Keoni commented that he always has a knot in his stomach at pick-up and drop-off times, wondering if the Ex (or his wife) will kick up a fuss of some sort. I get the same knot. And sure enough—yesterday we got another taste of pointless puerility.
We had reminded the kids to bring their sleeping bags because we’re planning a camping trip this week. They each have a nice down sleeping bag (I know this because I bought them, back when I was still married to their dad), and the arrangement is supposed to be that the kids can bring their own things back and forth between the households, regardless of which parent might have bought the items in question. The kids’ things are the KIDS’ things, and they’re supposed to be able to have their things with them.
However, instead of the down-filled sleeping bags, my Ex brought out a pair of old flannel bags that he and I had bought when we were college undergrads. They would be fine for a living-room slumber party, but in the Idaho mountains these weren’t warm enough when they were new—and that was almost twenty years ago. So I asked if the kids could please bring their warm sleeping bags, since we’re heading into the mountains.
“They’re in the trailer,” he answered evasively, clearly intending that retort to close the topic.
Can they please bring them?
“They’re in the trailer,” he repeated. (The tent-trailer in question was not ten feet from where I stood, and takes all of three minutes to open.)
Can they please bring them?
“They shouldn’t need—it’s July—they shouldn’t need them,” he blustered. (As if it hadn’t been a July-in-Idaho-mountains when HE got too cold in one of these same bags. They’ve served as picnic blankets ever since.)
In the mountains they might. Can they please bring their own sleeping bags?
(…reluctant pause…) “Okay… But I need to talk to you over here.” I followed him to the other side of the driveway, away from the kids, where he put on his most put-upon face and demanded to know: “How do I know they’re going to come back in any kind of decent condition?”
(Wait, what?? Seriously, where did that come from?)
What’s the productive thing to do at this point? He already said the kids can take their sleeping bags; but he wants me to have this “talk” with him first… If he truly had reason for concern, I don’t know what I could say that would reassure him. As it is, there’s no history or habit or past incident that would render this question applicable, or even explicable.
I learned a while back not to get diverted into pointless pissing matches with him, and I can’t imagine this “talk” fitting any other description. He still feels a need to take (or create) any opportunity to deprecate and disparage. Yes, I gave him a brand new High Horse to ride with my alcoholic relapse nineteen months ago, but he doesn’t seem to realize that his nag hasn’t had anything to feed on for a year and a half. (Maybe that’s why he’s grasping at straws? No, wait—horses eat hay.)
Bottom line? Never mind beating a dead horse—he’s still trying to ride it.
And I choose not to serve as his saddle any more. I chose not to engage in his inquisition about the imminent danger to the sleeping bags being released into my custody. If you’re not going to let the kids take their bags, say so and let me leave; if they can take their bags, let’s get them out so I can leave. I didn’t say that out loud, though; I just repeated myself… Can the kids please bring their sleeping bags?
Keoni stepped over to join us. The Ex told him to walk away. Keoni didn’t argue, but also didn’t move. I repeated my own question yet again.
How ridiculous does this get? Only one thing derailed the Ex from his desired discussion of the doubtlessly-doomed bags: namely, his stronger desire to deliver his diatribe to me alone. When Keoni declined to skedaddle, the Ex puffed up and tried again:
“Sir, you need to step away. This is between me and my wi— …me and my ex-wife.”
The almost-“wife” slip made me chuckle afterward (given that I’ve been Keoni’s wife for several years now, and that the Ex himself remarried just a few weeks ago), but at the time I just had one response: “I don’t have to talk to you alone.”
He did get the sleeping bags out of the trailer, for which I’m grateful—truly, I would have been worried about the kids keeping warm in those other bags. And I confess he did manage to strike a nerve as he grumbled while he got them out. He was complaining about Christian bringing his (expensive) ear protection for shooting, and both of them taking their (expensive) sleeping bags, and he said he’s “tired of buying all the expensive stuff because you won’t.” If he wanted to hit home with derision, that one did it—the difference between “won’t” versus “can’t” buy expensive things. As if I were blowing off the kids. And at the same time, frustration that he’d send them with inadequate equipment rather than focus on what’s best for them. And that he’d try to blame me for that (he’s worried I’d damage the sleeping bags? Oh please…) Why would he balk at letting the kids take their own (sufficiently warm) sleeping bags or their own ear protection?—it’s not as though I’M using his “expensive” stuff, so what’s the problem?
This is why I don’t talk to him alone. This is why I need a little time for prayer-assisted emotional recalibration after I do have to talk with him. His muddied view of our simple and joyful life can temporarily sully my own view of it until I manage to shake off his disagreeable influence. So here I am recalibrating, and looking forward to the camping all of us are excited about.
When Christian called earlier in the week with questions about his packing-list for camping, I told him we’ll be heading up to Silver City, a mining ghost-town that Keoni & I visited last summer when I wrote the cover-story for a travel magazine. On that trip we stayed in the 150-year-old hotel, but this time we’ll be pitching tents… And not in the established campground nearby, but somewhere along the river—REAL Idaho camping, for the first time in the kids’ memory. They’ve been out regularly with their dad and his wife, but the trailer (with its heater, stove, and running water) disqualifies those travels from the Camping-category, in my [snobbish-outdoorswoman] opinion.
They’ll have a lot of new experiences mixed in with some old-and-familiar ones. Setting up a campsite with tents, digging a latrine, panning for gold below the old mines, starting a fire with flint and steel, cooking in the campfire coals, target-shooting with the Desert Eagle handgun, exploring the ghost town and its cemetery, bait-fishing (and fish-cleaning, and fish-frying over a campfire), working on carving our walking sticks, some hiking-exploring, campfire sing-along, some reading aloud from my favorite Idaho-outdoors-author Patrick McManus… And I’ll be interested to see the photojournalism-perspective of each of the kids, now that they’re taking pictures.
There, see? I just needed to realign my mind. And no, I wouldn’t trade our joyful, rich-in-experience life for the Ex’s agitated, rich-in-trinkets existence.
Imagine, for a moment, a musician who’d been named to the list of “100 Greatest Living American Songwriters” before the age of thirty, whose albums are laden with lyrical language and layers of literary and intellectual references… And imagine that same musician writing two hundred pages of fiction with all the lyrical allure of his song-smithing. That’s exactly what we have with Josh Ritter’s first novel, Bright’s Passage.
Henry Bright comes home from World War I with an angel in tow. An argumentative angel, who takes up residence in his horse and meddles in Henry’s life. I’d suggest that the best way to read this book is simply to let the story and the language flow. You could inflict your own analysis on it by worrying about the “whys” of what’s going on–maybe a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to explain away that absurd angel–but doing so would only distract from the experience of the story itself.
Bright’s life is artfully interwoven in three braided strands throughout the book… His passage from his isolated mountain home after burying his young wife, journeying with a newborn son (and a goat, and the persnickety horse-angel), trudging toward a town and “feeding the child with his trigger finger dipped in the goat’s milk”… His experiences in the trenches of France, where the angel first attached itself to him… And his memories of childhood in a mountain mining community–memories of his mother, who raised him alone after the mines crushed his father, and of the girl Rachel who would (briefly) become his wife when he returned from the war.
A reader determined to dissect might decide Bright is a damaged and delusional man who imagined that bossy angel into his horse. I’m actually inclined to think Bright himself is perfectly sound–although his angel could certainly benefit from some time on the therapy couch. Whatever conclusions you draw as you read, they’ll be yours to keep; Josh doesn’t contaminate his story-telling (or insult his readers) with explanations.
I just looked up Josh’s own comments about the book on Amazon, and was disgruntled to find the exact phrase I’d just written, about the angel who “takes up residence in Henry’s horse.” Dangit, now I’ll have to edit so people don’t think I was cribbing. Or… I’ll leave it as is, and have a laugh. We did have the same English teachers, after all… Josh was a few years behind me in school, and one of my memories (brought to mind by Henry Bright’s recollection of a childhood Christmas program in which he played the donkey and Rachel the angel) is of junior-high Josh dressed as Joseph, across our church’s prop-manger from my little sister in a blue veil.
Our hometown of Moscow Idaho is the kind of small town where folks showed up spontaneously when the locally owned BookPeople moved to a new location across the street; Main Street shut down for the length of a summer evening while a bucket-brigade of volunteers passed books across the street from hand to hand until the move was compete. Which is probably why my favorite publicity shot of Josh is this one of him singing in front of our own BookPeople store.
I can honestly claim, though, that the hometown connection played no part in my first fascination with Josh’s music. I was fooling around on iTunes a few years ago, whimsically searching for songs with “Idaho” in the title–and fell in love with his, making no connection at the time between the name on the album and the kid from my sister’s class. I downloaded the song–and everything else of his that I could find–and the very next morning when I started up my car it kicked the radio to life in the middle of this same song, which Josh was performing live on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Crazy synchronicity, I was thinking, when my cell phone rang and my mom asked if I remembered Josh Ritter from our church… Oh. That Josh Ritter. (I’d just thought the name was familiar because… well, because CDs are made by famous people. Bright one, I am.)
If you’re not familiar with his music, check out “Kathleen” or “Good Man.” I’ve posted “Idaho” below because… well, because it’s Idaho.
A person who wants light fluffy lyrics would probably find Josh’s philosophical lines frustrating–and the same might go for his novel. For the reader or listener who doesn’t object to thinking, however, Josh’s writing–whether song-lyrics or novel–is an absolute treasure of the mind. This a book I would happily read just for the language–he’s truly a word-wizard.
It’s been a day of Dragons in our household. Christian’s long-anticipated pre-order of Christopher Paolini’s “Inheritance” arrived (as did his invisible Dragon-friend’s pre-order, a book which apparently features small dragons who ride people)… nicely timed with a released update to his favorite DragonVale game on Mom’s iPad, and arrival of the movie “Eragon” from Netflix (at his request–though he still grumbles about details the movie “got wrong”)…
We spent the rainy afternoon cuddled up in a family reading-heap, ate dinner in front of the movie, and finished the evening with chocolate pie! I must report that there were some suspicious footprints across the pie when I went to cut it–and since Dragon is “slightly larger than a big toe” and has an admitted taste for chocolate, he tops the suspect list. Can’t prove anything, though, since he’s invisible to everyone but Christian, who’s mum on whether Dragon has a chocolate mustache to match his own…
This is the same dessert (labeled in our recipe-file as “Mommy’s chocolate pie”) which my mom always made for my birthday–and Christian suggested today that it should be his birthday-treat as well, since his March 14 birthday is “3.14, which should be Pi Day”… Today we’ve temporarily rechristened it (in honor of yesterday’s post about his life as a worm) “Slimey’s Dirt Pie.”
Christian DID point out to me that yesterday’s reminiscences about nicknames neglected his original nickname, so I’ve promised remedy the omission. When I was pregnant with him I didn’t find out what “flavor” I was carrying, and rather than referring generically to “the baby” (or worse, “it“) for nine months, I nick-named him Turtle. (My mom did the same when she was pregnant with me, which is why I’m still “Sam” to my family…) It’s ironic, actually, that I left out that name for him, because the Turtle is HIS tattoo on my arm. (Well, the Dragon tattoo is his as well, but it’s the Turtle that has his name on it.)
A bit of Dragon-trivia to close… I have it on Authority that dragons smell “like books, or root beer, or sweat, or maple syrup–depending on what they’ve been doing.” And perhaps, on occasion, like chocolate pie.
I actually got that response once, from an older lady (you know, probably about the age I am now) at a campground on the east coast, when I responded to her friendly where-ya-from by answering “Idaho.” Unsure whether a third-grader were allowed to correct a Grownup, I defaulted by abruptly removing myself from the conversation, and the presence of the Idiot Grownup. A few years later, at a national conference of high-schoolers, I scoffed at some other kids who asked me (entirely in earnest) whether we had electricity or indoor plumbing.
Truth be told, though, I know a few people who live without either–and the public restrooms along some of our roads are hole-in-the-ground outhouses. For that matter, the single road which connects the northern and southern halves of our state is a windy little affair (often impassable due to rockslides or snow) that might not be deemed worthy of the name “highway” by folks in other regions of the country.
So although I have no wish to feed any stereotypes about a rural state, I do have to observe that there are some admittedly humorous peculiarities to be found here. Take, for example, the two-week “Spud Break” we had from school every September in eastern Idaho, when the older kids and most of the school staff were needed in the fields for potato harvest. Or the fact that, when I moved into my first Boise home just half a mile from the capitol building, my next-door-neighbors had a herd of goats in the backyard, while a number of horses pastured just down the street. Well within city-limits, mind you, in the state’s capital city. (I’m debating whether to use quotation marks around “city” in that sentence. If Idaho HAS a city, Boise is it. I’ll leave it at that.)
My sister and I used to play a “Travel Bingo” game on car trips; it was a scavenger hunt of sorts, setting us to look for items in an ascending hierarchy of difficulty. But the game must have been manufactured on the East Coast, because the “easy” level included things like a traffic clover-leaf (which we’d never laid eyes on), while the most difficult level included “covered wagon” and “outhouse”… Not a game designed for Idaho, where the “tractor crossing” sign is commonplace.
My other car-trip memory is my mother attempting to read aloud to us from books by Idaho outdoorsman Pat McManus. As I wrote to him decades later, when I was setting up an internet chat with the students of my “Idaho Literature” class, my mom would get to such a point of wheezing, choking laughter that she’d have to pass the book to the backseat so one of us could continue the reading. I still have my treasured copy of “They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?“–signed by him at a Young Authors’ Conference in my gradeschool years. If you’re up for some classic Idaho humor, his books will make any fisherman howl with laughter.
With a nod to Jeff Foxworthy (whose Redneck observations are so funny because of the truths behind many of them), I offer the following observations on my home state:
You may be in Idaho if…
The local car dealership offers a free rifle with your new truck-purchase. (Not joking.)
Back-yard-chicken classes are advertised on your street corner.
There’s a Live Bait Vending Machine in front of your grocery store.
The roadside signs along the highway sport bullet-holes.
A man who loses his leg to a thresher buries it in the local cemetery, with the rest of him joining it later. (Not joking. You can visit Ben Waldron’s headstone AND his, er, legstone in Samaria ID.)
Participants in a mountain-man rendezvous, Indian pow-wow, or cowboy-poetry fiddle-fest are not people “dressing a part.”
When it comes down to it, though, how I REALLY know I’m in Idaho is that people don’t lock their doors, and strangers smile at each other. (In fact, there’s still a law on the books in Pocatello ID that “a person may not be seen in public without a smile.”) And on that cheery note, I’ll leave you with a little bit of hard-earned Idaho Wisdom: Don’t squat with your spurs on.
I suppose one way to measure the popularity of a Classic is to count the number of spin-offs it’s spawned. Gauging by that measure, I’d have to say that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice surpasses “popular” and rings in at “obsession;” a quick bookstore-search turned up more than 50 novels based on Austen’s golden oldie. And what a selection!–the Darcy/Bennet gang are recast in sequels, family sagas (including an account of Mary Bennet written by a Catholic nun), re-tellings from different points of view, spin-offs based on minor characters, modern settings, mysteries, bodice-rippers, even vampire and zombie novels. While I’m not quite ready to entertain the idea of “Mr. Darcy, Vampyre,” I’ll ‘fess up to a deep enough enjoyment of Austen’s original that I’m open to the knock-offs… IF they actually give me more of what I so enjoyed in the first place.
Not all of them do. Take, as a dreadful example, Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Or, as a fellow blogger ironically observed, “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: in the bath, in the carriage, on the dressing table…” I don’t have any aversion to steamy scenes in and of themselves, but for heck’s sake serve them up with some Plot! (Ruminations on the discomforts of a long carriage-ride after a long sex-session aren’t a satisfactory substitute for actual storyline…)
In the middle of the spectrum are some of the have-fun-with it tales like Carrie Bebris’s Suspense and Sensibility, which combines characters from two of Austen’s novels and adds a touch of supernatural mystery. What I enjoy about this one is the fact that Bebris carries forward the wit and humor of the verbal exchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy, so although the plot is decidedly un-Austen, the characters remain themselves.
Which leads me to my favorite, the Top-Notch Knock-Off: Pamela Aidan’s trilogy, told from Darcy’s point of view. (Icing on the cake for me: Aidan is an Idaho Author, woot!) The opening novel, An Assembly Such as This, encompasses all of my favorite scenes and banter from Austen’s original, and adds more in the same vein. My interest, ultimately, in reading a spin-off stems from my wish that Austen had written more of it–and Aiden supplies just that. Elizabeth Bennet is her saucy self, Darcy confounded and frustrated that he can’t seem to gain the upper hand in their verbal sparring, Caroline Bingley as wickedly catty as ever, and still scheming to draw Darcy to herself… Add to the cast a few new characters, most notably Darcy’s valet, Fletcher; perpetually proper and unruffled, though not above a little “orchestrating” of events from the behind-the-scenes vantage point of the servants’ quarters, Fletcher occasionally risks his master’s ire by dropping advice and hints hidden in quotes from Shakespeare. The entire trilogy makes for an engaging read–one that I think Austen herself would have enjoyed, which is about the highest compliment I can think of to pay it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling an urge to pop in my well-worn disc of the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. I imagine Austen would approve of Colin Firth as well. :)