All the books are read. All (most) of the papers are graded. Just found The Trench Angel at Chapel Hill's great used bookstore The Bookshop. The pages look read all the way through. It feels good, especially since they're selling it for $8.50. Back to writing.
And the semester begins....
Recently, I was down in Southern Pines, NC as a writer-in-resident at the Weymouth Center for the Arts. Situated on a beautiful, well-gardened estate, the Center is housed in a century-old mansion, reportedly haunted. Although I saw no ghosts (which helped keep me focused on writing), I did pass this in the hall every day. He was my muse.
I recently came across William Monahan's Light House at the library (sorry Mr. Monahan for not contributing to your royalty check, but we all got to save in these uncertain times). I hadn't heard of it before and didn't come in with a lot of hopes based on the description, but it turned out to be one of the funniest books I've read in years. It's worth checking out if you're like comedy filthy and over the top and esoteric.
A while back, I began looking into the life of Andrew Gutierrez: his grave is a few minutes walk from my UNC office. I was surprised to find a fellow Gutierrez in Chapel Hill: I haven’t met any others in the four years I’ve been here. Looking through an ancestry website, which held census and naturalization records, yearbooks pictures, a draft card, and death certificate, I was able to work up a brief bio:
Andrew Gutierrez was born on New Year’s Eve 1903 in Santiago, Cuba to Jose and Emma Gutierrez. He was given the first name Andres, a name he carried to the United States aboard the SS Munargo, which dropped him in New York on June 27, 1922. He went on to attend the University of North Carolina and became a Civil Engineer. On Christmas Eve of 1924, he married Margaret Nesbitt, 17, whose family had been in Chapel Hill for a generation. You can still see the Nesbitt name on certain business in the area. At some point, they moved to Urbana, Illinois, where there first child Andrew was born in 1925. Three more children followed: Joseph, Rosita, and Margaret. Some time in the late 20s, the family moved back to Chapel Hill, where Andrew worked as an engineer at the Durham County Water Department. Later, he moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he worked for the D.C. government. He died in Virginia in 1980 of Acute Pulmonary Ademaand Parkinsons.
Of course, very little of this tells me anything about his life, what he loved, what he thought of the life he led, how it must have pained him not to be able to return to Cuba in his later years. Still, every day when I see his headstone, I try to imagine those things, to fill in the other parts of life, the ones that don’t end up on paper.
Not much to say on this except that Charlottesville is startlingly beautiful, the festival hosts and my co-panelists were lovely, and I got to give a particularly suave man-nod to John Grisham. Oh and there is this picture below, where I look like I'm plotting some sort of Dumasian revenge.
Next week I'm taking my creative nonfiction class on a field trip to the campus graveyard. We'll talk about some death-themed essays, free-write about death, etc...It'll be fun and creepy.
Outside of old Wilson Library (which makes you feel like you're in a really grand old university), the graveyard is my favorite part of UNC's campus. It pretty much came with the university (dating to the late 1700s) and there's even a slave section of it (unmarked graves). The only part of it that is disconcerting is when I bus past it in the afternoon and see a headstone with my name on it (see below.) I'm thinking of looking into these people: there aren't many Gutierrez' in the Chapel Hill area, especially way back when.
I'm putting together a historical fiction syllabus right now and I know that one question I am going to get is this: what defines historical fiction? It's not simple. Some argue before living memory, say 100 years ago (which cuts off my own novel, not to mention much of E.L. Doctorow's work), or others believe it's two generations ago (which I can't really define). I tend to define it in looser terms: stories where the historical setting is at the forefront of the narrative.
For instance, I just finished Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, which is set in late 1970s New York and Italy. The fact that it's forty years ago is essential to the narrative. In addition, while it feels somewhat like our current world, it is definitely different in fundamental ways. It's in the past, one that is strikingly different than our own. While it's in the "living memory" of many readers, it's specifically about a different time than the contemporary reader is living in now.
I was also thinking of this because I just began reading Marlon James monumental A Brief History of Seven Killings. It's set in Jamaica and the U.S., spanning over thirty years (1959-1991). Is it historical fiction? I lived through some of these years (as did James who is somewhat older), but much of it takes places before my memory. Most would say it's not: it's too recent. Yet, it's a story that could not take place in the modern age, but speaks to a modern audience.
In the end, defining genres is sort of pointless. It doesn't particularly matter and the stakes in doing so often result in the sort petty fights that take up much of our current literary culture.
On Wednesday, I'll be talking to Durham Tech students and faculty about novel openings and how those opening images and metaphors help us learn the language of the novel, how they teach us how to "read" the book. Off the top of my head, the my favorite's that come mind are Billy Bathgate (a young boy jumping onto a boat in the darkness, full of faith and confidence), All the Kings Men (a car teetering out of control), Jazz (a narrator whispering to the audience about something she heard), and Jesus' Son (our hero rising out of the water, heroin-addled and seeing the future, as if he'd been baptized). We'll see how it goes.
Yesterday I joined the great Frank Stasio on North Carolina Public Radio's The State of Things. It was my first time ever on the radio and it was a fairly terrifying experience, especially since it was live. Stasio's a great host and gently led me through the Q & A, but in the back of my mind, I was trying to obliterate George Carlin's seven dirty words from my vocabulary. I did not want--especially this being pledge week--to be the cause of an enormous FCC fine on our beloved NPR affiliate. Fortunately, my mouth was a clean as a nun's and I made it through without a single "shit" or "fuck" to sully my reputation. You can listen to it at WUNC.
Even though the official pub date is still a week away, I found this in UNC's campus bookstore, right next to Lily Tuck and David Cronenberg. Yes, I'm one book away from the guy who directed Naked Lunch, which makes me a literary cousin of William Burroughs. Kind of. We could totally sit down together at Thanksgiving, me eating turkey, Burroughs shooting heroin, eyeing a nearby apple.
In light of the recent outbreak of cholera in Iraq, I've been researching an essay that looks at the wave of cholera outbreaks that swept through New York in the 19th century. It's as bad as you'd expect, with the victims (almost always poor) blamed for bringing this upon themselves. Much of the propaganda was targeted at the Irish for their drinking. Ironically, distilled spirits were the only safe beverage to prevent the scourge.
And they feel real.
Sometimes, when you're struggling with a book or story, it helps to return to one of your inspirations, one of the books that got you started on your path, one of the books that stick with you long after you've forgotten the plot details, the specifics. Richard Powers' Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is like that for me. Its three interconnecting narratives that try to make sense of the First World War, one taking place during that period, and two others that are trying to understand the consequences. Its erudite in the least pretentious sense of the word and a good place for any one wanting to start with Powers.
A few years back, when I was in the midst of writing The Trench Angel, my wife found a stuffed prairie dog online (not stuffed as in taxidermied by some dude in a double wide, but stuffed as in "stuffed animal.") She then drew the anarchist sign on his belly to make him look like a 70s British Punk badass. He's been hanging out in my office ever since.
Teaching a course called "contemporary fiction" is a bit daunting. What's contemporary? Who do I pick? What will my first-year students (imagine your 18-year old self but as a business major) not only enjoy but also struggle with, in a good way? I put up some ground rules:
1. No novels before 1990. I had to pick a year and 25 years ago seems like a good place to begin. The short stories go back a bit further, but all of the writers are still alive and writing to the best of my knowledge.
2. No novels over 350 pages. It's a first-year class, so anything more than that will be difficult to teach.
3. It has to be a "quick read." Hence, no Cormac McCarthy. I love Cormac McCarthy but not in this class. Not even The Road. A little too bleak to spend a week talking about.
Here's the list:
Banks, Russell, "Sara Cole: A Type of Love Story."
Cisneros, Sandra, "Never Marry a Mexican."
Gaitskill, Mary, "Tiny, Smiling Daddy."
Jones, Edward, "Marie."
Klay, Phi, "Redeployment."
Lahiri, Jhumpa, "A Temporary Matter."
Link, Kelly, "Stone Animals."
Moore, Lorrie, "People Like that...."
Nelson, Antonya, "Female Trouble."
O'Brien, Tim, "The Things they Carried."
Orringer, Julie, "Pilgrims."
Richter, Stacey, "The Cavemen in the Hedges."
Saunders, George, "Sea Oak."
Silber, Joan, "My Shape."
Baxter, Charles. Feast of Love.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage.
Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son: Stories.
Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz.
Offill, Jenny. Dept. of Speculation.
Woodrell, Daniel. Winter’s Bone.