Welcome to Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors
Welcome to Issue Number 2, the premiere issue of Prime Number Magazine. What’s that? Number 2? Why not Number 1? Because we at PNM are fond of the distinctive, the indivisible, the prime. And, as math fans know, the first prime number is Number 2. It’s a gimmick. We admit it. But we like it.
Each quarter we will post a new Prime Number issue online (look for Number 3 in October and Number 5 in January) and between issues we’ll regularly post updates—every 13 days, maybe every 11, possibly 17—and we’re calling those updates our Prime Decimals. (That’s not a real math term; we made it up.) Look for Prime Decimal 2.2 consisting of flash fiction and short poetry on August 1 (13 days after our debut).
In addition to these great quarterly issues, we’re planning annual print issues with the editors’ choices of the best of the year—the best stories, the best poems, and the best essays.
As of today, July 19, 2010, we are open for submissions. We invite you to submit your best work: fiction, creative non-fiction, and craft essays under 3,000 words; book reviews under 500 words; and poetry. We’ll also welcome queries for interviews. We expect to publish both emerging and established writers. We don’t have an aesthetic. Our goal is to publish distinctive work, regardless of theme and style.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive.
Issue 2, July-September 2010
Interviews & Reviews
Poetry from Fleda Brown
The Chinless Woman in the Smart Park Booth
Chin collapsed like ripples at the shore, like a shirt
crumpled up at the waist: like this or that:
the driver thus tries to avoid coming terribly alert
from his mindless paying and passing on, who has sat
for hours on a plane and now is loose for home,
dragging his metaphors like tin cans behind.
The proportion that makes for ease, the natural bone
that beauty calls its own—what else can the mind
do with its omission? The mind, we know
from several recent studies, prefers regularity,
likes it so much that a thousand people chose
a face made up of the average of a random sea
of faces as the one they most admire. Now this
transgression, the depth it hints at, the human fabric
broken down! How could one stand to kiss
that smiling vacancy? Once again grief has picked
a place to land, arbitrary, exact, scornful
of averages. The driver, who loves his wife and kids,
imagines the chinless boiling kiss, feels its pull
of absence, all the more for being sweet, rid
of self-consciousness. Something in him feels lost
as a child, his father angry, mother sad and far-
looking. He would like a certainty, not tossed
from one to the other, steering with radar…..
The grandmother collects what she can of the past, stows it
jumbled, in an old bag she hasn’t taken time
to sort. She wanders down streets you don’t know
the names of. Even on the day of your birth, she climbed
through tangles, dutifully walked the dog Samson,
dumb lurch of a retriever, straight into the tiny clout
of two snarling pugs. Samson dragged her along,
terrified and panting, back to the house.
Out there, a truck revved. She and the dog—the worse
for shivers, eye to dilated eye. Across town,
your mother’s hormones were dilating her pelvis bones,
switching the new grandmother’s life into reverse.
As on the elliptical trainer, the brief pause, then,
face forward, she’s running backward toward the unknown.
What steers the second grandchild—thin, small-boned,
blowing the trumpet while life grinds its gears
like a truck? The grandmother doesn’t wish him thrown
to the gods of art that need the shivering, the mere
skin’s quivering molecules. She, too,
wanted nothing more than to be held. Apparently,
she notes, the basic structure is enfolded: a queue
of petals, stamen, trumpeting pistil. One sees
nothing of the soft inside. What lies on the surface
tries to be cold as brass, tries to shut the door
against the other. She hears the clatter of children
against the screen door: She remembers the hard purpose
of their cries: the old lament, “Don’t divorce.”
Now this grandchild’s golden trumpet, the wail again.
Harry Potter grandson, video forever blooming
in your round glasses, how can she find you, how dare
enter? She stands over, the awkward looming
of a grandparent, the useless gesture of ruffling the hair.
No way to revise the past, to travel back through
to your father, how she stroked his hair, small child
kneeling on her bed, sobbing for his father, who used to
lie on the floor and raise him on his feet, fly him, wild
with joy, while she sat knowing what this would come to.
Heart breaking, we call it, more of a steady muffled
truck-sound in the distance—deep bass, a movie sound.
How to comfort you for what you never knew—
how your father flew down into his books, the terrible
dark arts thundering outside the door like snowplows.
The grandmother plays knights with you on a snowed-in
afternoon, looking for you where you might be found,
inside your toys. The knights come apart, fasten
with magnets. You take one knight’s body, surround it
with five heads, thinking up a question. The legs, strewn,
answer that they have given up bringing answers.
One body with silver mail, one with gold, soon
interchanged. You tuck each of their dangerous lances
under the arm of the other, keeping the tips warm.
Love with a safety plan. Your curls fall across
the pieces so you can concentrate, the glitch in your brain
at war against confusing extra sounds. The swarm
of sounds in the grandmother’s head, too—the lost
past. She strains to hear you over the cries of the slain.
The child’s serious brown eyes, full without prejudice.
Eyes like her mother’s: part mirror, part well.
The grandmother makes the long flight, not to be remiss,
to Oregon for three days. Ah, the child can easily tell
the truth of brevity. Here in the minivan’s back seat,
they find objects out the window, beginning with letters
of the alphabet, in order. She keeps on, street after street,
to the tiresome end: good reader; speller, better.
Knows q needs u. Question: What if her parents
had married? A gate left unlatched, an alphabet to range,
to close it. The grandmother and the actual grandfather married.
The grandmother comes along out of guilt, of love, of some sense
of continuity. She brings small gifts, she changes
herself into who she would be, what she would carry.
Piano for rousing both black and white, cup
and stick for drum corps, lap harp for plucking out tones,
xylophone wall at the park for stroking the stones
to life: the song of Casey, wild to make up
something out of nothing, right foot in, right foot
out. Casey, singing in his booster chair, firing
bits of peanut butter sandwich into space. Stay put,
grandmother, a reverberation alongside, conspiring
against the sandwich song! She with her lead
feet sweeps up what has fallen. She is all for the dancing,
if it’s old time rock and roll—its nice four-four
measures. She likes the way they plan ahead,
the way they let the past bounce along, advancing
only inside their exact, though passionate, score.
Is the grandmother’s life generic, after all—the clichés
she’s “spent a lifetime” struggling against? Her worry
over healing, over scars, nothing but the talk-show way
of original sin? Meanwhile, Abby, all flurry
on her pink scooter, drags her pink polka-dotted
rain boot, braking. Half a block behind, the grandmother’s
mortality feels more like a fading, less knotted.
During pledge week, she watches, along with all the other
elders, the aged Motown singers. The theme
is death, start to finish. A lovely arrogance, legs
and arms and scooter, then a decline. It transpires
so quickly, the grandmother gets a little queasy.
She had something to warn about love, hesitates to say,
afraid to disturb the balance the wheels require.
Fleda Brown’s new book is Driving With Dvorak, released in March by the University of Nebraska Press. Her most recent collection of poems, Reunion (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), won the Felix Pollak Prize. The author of five previous collections of poems, she has won numerous prizes, among them a Pushcart Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award, and her work has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she taught for 27 years and directed the Poets in the Schools program. She was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-07. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Wash.
"The grandmother poems began as prose poems and evolved into sonnets. What you have here is part of a slightly longer series—each grandchild has one poem."
Poetry from James Harms
followed by Q&A
Father’s Day: the Summer Solstice
How often do the grunion run?
The checking account is dry
and we’re out here in the moonlight,
Dad to his ankles in fish on the wet sand
grabbing, it seems, at slivers of mercury
while Caroline swings a butterfly net
above her head fishing for stars.
Tom teeters and falls, his diaper
filling with ocean and sagging off
his ass; he’s holding a coffee can
drilled with holes. And Marianne, eight-
years-old and too cool to care, not yet
smoking but thinking about it there on a dune,
her wet box empty beside her, Marianne
is watching her shadow tear away and walk
toward the sea. I am nothing special
there in the backwash, my own two cans
brimming with slim silversides,
their milt and eggs spilling in the surf
like melting ice cream. The darkness is nearly
complete, though off beyond Catalina,
at the edge of the world, a pen line of pink
still stains the air, more memory of the year’s
longest day than scar, though even memories
heal over without vanishing. There’s one now!
Dad read this morning about the run,
a boxed recipe at the bottom of the page:
“Sauteed Grunion with Sea Grass.”
So what shall we do for Father’s Day,
my mother asked, who’s gathering eel grass
in a plastic bag and wondering what next.
I hate knowing the answer to that.
The problem with memories is that they aren’t
discrete, never trapped alone in amber
like insects rescued from the life they’ll live,
held safe in solution until time builds a shell
to keep them safe; you can’t hold them to the light
and say, Yes, that’s how it was that day, the smell
of fish frying at midnight, Dad singing hymns
at the stove while Tom slept on the floor
in a corner and Carrie washed the inedible
sea salad at the sink with Mom. Marianne
was long gone, in her room entombed
in headphones and Iron Butterfly, while I
held a grunion in each hand feeling their
wriggling grow weaker, unaware of anything
outside, anything beyond the fence and
the alley and the parking lot, anything
at all in that sequence of pools and backyards,
though it seemed the sun was waiting to rise at the end
of the street, a word in my throat struggling
to the surface, struggling toward the dark even then,
as if I were special, a coffee can of light.
The New Rainbow
The new rainbow can’t be seen
by the stubborn or insane,
though it sounds like a loose shutter
following them through their lives.
The new rainbow has twelve colors
and a dozen thin bands of silver velvet sash,
though it’s the smell of sage and thyme
that years later friends acknowledge remembering.
The new rainbow’s pot of gold
is pewter and holds coins the shape of hands.
And in each palm is a face, the faces of beggars, the newly born,
the recently blind; and so each day the pot of riches grows.
The new rainbow is tended by men
in uniform, their epaulets the size of chessboards,
and in fact whole towns reside on their shoulders, the elves
and pixies the living bear, ever stalwart, toward death.
My little boy drew the new rainbow
(a box of crayons and a sheet of typing paper)
while I bargained with devils in worsted suits.
As it rained on the roof far above. As the sky waited
for the new rainbow, waited to hear the verdict:
would I rise with ash at the end of an argument
or leave the house without my son, without my daughter
asleep beneath the eaves; would I walk over
the new rainbow, where my son says there are no blue
skies or bluebirds, no lullabies, no reason really to leave.
So we gather at the window, elves, children
and devils. And even I, who knows not which I am, can see it.
Sonnet (with Extra Last Line) by Frank Gehry
Nationale-Nederlanden Building, Prague
She mistook the wine in an old carafe
for a place to put her supermarket flowers.
She lit a Dunhill and ashed it in my lap,
removed my pants, then kept me hard for hours.
There are three or four ways to build a tower.
Nearly all rely on the tree’s reliance on sap.
In other words, it’s conversation and sour
breath, the heat of bodies, the easy laughs
that keep a building up, that stop its fall
as surely as she decided doubt
made marriage an overheated shadow,
a hiding place of false hellos, as though
H-e-l-l-o was code for knowing all about . . .
O, h-e-l-l, she knew: she knew nothing at all.
At the end
of an autumn
day: a noise
like sound refolded
into silence or
the slim breeze of
a linen handkerchief
replaced in some
Simple, the bruise
of evening on
the western sky,
a planet draws
the last light
into a simple button
and fall like
a blanket shaken
out on the lawn
behind the house,
the dark grass
where all summer
string and bits
of paper plate
the simple litter
and whatever else
the lidless ash
can were fashioned
into home. No linnets
in West Virginia,
though the souls
in a late autumn sky
sound the same.
James Harms is the author of six books of poetry including the forthcoming Comet Scar (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011). The winner of an NEA Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, he teaches at West Virginia University, and directs the low-residency MFA in Poetry at New England College.
"These poems come from all over the place: 'Quiet Heart' was inspired by Grant McLennan (of the Go-Betweens) and W.B. Yeats (those linnets); 'The New Rainbow' started out as an imitation of Bishop (I don’t remember which poem of hers I was imitating); 'Sonnet (with Extra Last Line) by Frank Gehry' was simply my attempt to imagine how Frank Gehry might write a sonnet; 'Father’s Day: the Summer Solstice' is a wholly invented memory, though my parents and siblings are all recognizable within the imagined dramatic situation."
Q&A with James Harms
If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?
Harms: Well, "Quiet Heart" takes its title from a song by The Go-Betweens, that greatest of all Australian bands, so I suppose I could easily fashion a soundtrack of their songs. In fact, given the width and depth of their body of work, that would probably be a fairly simple task. This poem is from a series of poems I wrote after Grant McLennan (one of the two singer/songwriters of The Go-Betweens) died a couple of years ago at the age of 48.
What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing?
Harms: I have no idea. I don't write in any one particular place.
Opening move: Rock, paper, or scissors?
Poetry from Sarah Lindsay
followed by Q&A
Speaking of the Octopus
A swirl of pickled silk,
stronger than she seems,
adept at attach- and detachment.
Apparently aimless bouquet of boneless limbs,
she does not have a shape,
forty thousand three hundred twenty,
with a tendency
when not in pursuit
to gesture in several directions at once,
expert in self-contradiction, adept
at obscuring her wits
with a talent for drifting,
propensity to hold still, stay still,
her thin skin taking the color of what she dwells on—
she does excellent impressions of water and stone.
Her face a pair of voracious eyes
and a fierce mouth hid
in the single pit of her arms. She can fit
through keyholes, open the lids
of glass boxes and climb in or out, but prefers
the amniotic wrap of the sea;
daily she reads its endless blue page, or
down where there’s darkness, thoroughly
fingers the Braille of a coral reef.
Quieter than eight snakes, her unfurled
anemone of flesh
trails her sack of a head until
she finds something desirable, chases it,
clasps it in arms
that give it a hundred cold kisses—or, if
she is too deeply moved,
makes a decoy self of ink
and dissolves behind it.
Three darknesses are my menagerie:
the hole at the base of this stone wall, the shade
lying deep in that thicket yonder, the earth
hereabouts that a gray fox goes to.
The porcupine draws his needles out
of the shade, sometimes, if I leave him salt;
the fox shies out on her weightless feet,
sometimes, if I clear the lawn and play music;
the badger I have not seen. The grass,
between quick dances, accumulates
my futile offerings: bits of roast beef,
carrots, glowworms, marzipan.
I’ve brought out my easel and paints for another
portrait of a stony opening,
empty of the animal I await
while either pretending indifference
or bowing before where I think it is,
the decisive beast who will come to me someday, surely,
if I stay ready always, will come
the moment I am not ready.
The Whiteness of the Breastbone of a Goose
The whiteness of the breastbone of a goose
infallibly tells how thick the snow will lie
while there is yet time to prepare.
The goose is killed for its secret. No matter,
its down and flesh will cover the children’s ribs.
Of course for the heavy hand of winter
the farmers assess as well the behavior of squirrels,
the timing of birds of passage, the thickness
of onion skins. Anything to shake loose
a hint of what comes next, what to do,
though Jakob with his yellow eyes
and Fred with his rosy spectacles
will come to different conclusions,
and Karl, rubbing his face with filthy hands,
can never agree with his brothers.
White that conforms to ground and seals it like sleep.
White hummocked over wagons and fences.
White that blinds a man to the way home
six freezing steps from his door.
They bend to read the feathered wreck,
their heart’s blood chanting My roof, my fields,
my cow, my wandering son; they wield a blade
to gouge out mere foreknowledge,
splitting a seaworthy sky-gray vessel
that might have sailed on,
appearing on the dark river white itself,
if not for snow.
We slogged in a sea of wind, sponge divers
free to pick up pennies but never
to shed our brick-foot boots and rise
above the thrashing trees.
The dog was either otter-smooth,
if she faced north,
or fluffed open from behind
like a dandelion.
Litter and leaves scurried sideways near the ground,
or leaped up, yet the sun beamed straight down,
so our legs and arms
could be bare and warm,
though so many molecules streamed stripped from our skin
that dogs statewide caught our scent.
We were diminished by the time we got home
and lurched into the sheltering front room,
whose quiet felt welcome against the ear, yet porous,
once the door was slammed for us.
Sarah Lindsay, a copy editor in Greensboro and a recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, is the author of Primate Behavior, Mount Clutter, and Twigs and Knucklebones. Among other places, her work has worked its way into The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, Parnassus, Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, and a friend's very exclusive cigar box.
“'Menagerie' goes back to the sad little city-park zoo we visited sometimes when I was little. Gradually I realized that the most fascinating animal was one that stayed out of sight behind the smelly concrete space with its name on display.
"I read the phrase 'the whiteness of the breastbone of a goose' in a list of ways to foretell winter weather. The list didn’t say how anyone knew what degrees of whiteness to watch for."
Q&A with Sarah Lindsay
What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing?
Lindsay: When I'm writing the poem, I'm almost always at my desk, which faces east right down the street that dead-ends into our yard. Before the sitting-down part, I tend to work things out at the kitchen sink while washing dishes, facing north.
Opening move: Rock, paper, or scissors?
Lindsay: I'm partial to paper. And once it's used I can write on the back.
Poetry from Jake Adam York
te lyra pulsa manu or something like that
As Ovid or Onomacritus—or was it Ike Turner?—said
music makes everything want to reach out of itself
rocks forgetting their gravity, birds hovering
as if become part of the air itself,
and so the pines and the olives leaning over Orpheus
as he slid the bottle along the guitar’s neck
gave up their sap and oil which is why he glistened
in the sun or the starlight and seemed to express
that brilliance, like a zoetrope or a planetarium,
and you couldn’t tell if he was gathering
or giving it back, but that’s music,
erupting beautiful and returning to itself at last,
Mercury’s gift—the turtle’s gut
strung across its desiccated shell,
a melody pulled from such concentrated silence
and returned to its bowl, making every ear
the parenthesis that separates us from persistence.
But we want to last, at least long enough
to grasp what we’ve just let go, so
the women, washing their clothes by the river,
hearing that song—its melody remembering
then forgetting every one they knew—
left their clothes to froth on the river’s shoals,
to follow and catch and at last
to reach inside him for what they’d lost,
pulling everything out,
which is how music entered the human world,
a stain beneath the fingernails that tells
where you’ve been. His head, his guitar
floated down the Hebrus to the sea
were Apollo raised the strings into the night
making the turtle and the song immortal.
That, anyway, is how it was put to me
in a juke-joint in Mississippi, as if
from Onomacritus to Ovid to Ike Zimmerman,
who taught Robert Johnson how to play,
and when someone poisoned—or was it stabbed?—
Johnson, for something he said,
like Won’t you squeeze my lemon
till the juice runs down my leg
or I got a phonograph… back, like a breath,
into the world, the water, the earth,
the light. There is always someone there,
Ovid should have said, to tear you apart
when you get beautiful enough, first just picking
at the skin, the fingernail or tortoise-shell
plectrum a kind of tease, but then more strident,
your corona zipped off and flattened to a disc.
This is how, in these moments, when music
coaxes everything out of itself,
when you become so attuned
you almost hear the light,
the pulse of the fluorescent tube
over the bar or the cigarette machine
or the star, 900 years away,
which is really two stars, eclipsing
then amplifying one another, this
is how I imagine William Moore,
after walking from Chattanooga to Gadsden,
with the sign, Jesus Was An Alien,
taped to his caisson, his letter for Ross Barnett—
Be gracious and give more
than is immediately demanded of you—
still folded in its envelope
when the assassin found him,
and this is how I imagine
Medgar Evers, not two months later,
the pulse of the kitchen light
reaching through the bullet hole in the window
to flicker on his skin,
the one struck down on the night
of the year’s first Lyrids, the meteors
that seem to fall from the guitar in the sky
like change passersby have thrown
through the sound hole, the other
as the coins rang again on the dome of night,
and Zimmerman in the graveyard
where he taught Johnson how to listen,
looking up through the trees and playing
until the dew had fallen on him again
and he felt a music in his fingers
he hadn’t known for years…
Maybe this is not what he meant,
Ovid or Onomacritus or Ike
or whatever his name was
when he told me the story
of the original bluesman
that night at the bar in Mississippi,
but this is how I remember it
when I see him, turning slowly
in the neon, as he reaches through the crowd,
everyone reaching, gathering
beneath the fingernails, this is what I remember
when he leans his head back
and I can see the beat of the artery
in his neck, this is what I hear
when I listen to the light
pulsing on his skin.
Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems: Murder Ballads (2005, Elixir); A Murmuration of Starlings (2008, Southern Illinois University); which won the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry; and Persons Unknown (2010 SIU), due out in October. He is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where he co-edits Copper Nickel.
"I was invited to contribute work to a gallery show by collaborating with a scientist who was working on binary star modeling. The star my partner was working on most seriously is Beta Lyrae, and in researching the star, my mind drifted in two directions-call these the binaries of the poem-toward the lyre itself and therefore Orpheus and so Ovid et al, and the meteor showers that come 'out of' Lyra each year, one in April and another in June, months that stand out in memory from my work on a sequence of Civil Rights elegies."
In Memory of Denny Coughlin
by Peter Orner
Walpole, Massachusetts (1995)
Things were good for a while. A team made up of guys from Southie would play a team made up of guys from from Charlestown—with a couple of lifers from Chelsea or Malden thrown in to make things even up. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Can’t you see Pinkhands Salerno, still nursing his eye with a frozen sausage? Shouting from the sidelines like we were putting on Guys and Dolls, “Fuckers, this show's gotta go on!” The place used to just be called Walpole, but the people of the town of Walpole got tired of being known only as the town with the prison so the state of Massachusetts changed the name to Cedar Junction, a mythical place, an intersection of horrors just off Route 47 North. Turn right at the Dairy Delight and keep going a mile and a half. Paint scabbed, looks like an abandoned factory but for the razor wire loop-di-looped and the guard towers.
Denny Coughlin made the rules and Salerno, his most faithful lieutenant, carried them out with the love and zeal of a convert. Denny Coughlin. Good old Boston Irish from an old Southie family. Some of the sons went into the racket, others into politics. When his brother Len got hitched, Mike Dukakis was at the wedding. It’s true. There’s pictures. Denny though was in the crime branch and back then, he’d be the first to admit it, he wasn’t so bright. He got lugged on a murder two for smashing a little drug runner in the head with a tire iron behind the Shell on Columbus Boulevard. Denny pled to manslaughter and landed eight to ten at Walpole.
The game had two basic rules:
Rule 1: No injuries. Ever. If you got hurt enough so that you couldn't play you had to drag yourself off to the sidelines and stuff your elbow back in the socket or get a towel to staunch whatever was bleeding. But—you were forbidden to go to the choke. The rule came about because Sergeant Hanrahan said the game was getting too expensive after Rent Meelhan got snocked so hard by Joey Norris he had to be carried off—gushing eyepucks—on a stretcher. Spent a week in the choke with five broken ribs, a lump on his head big as Uranus, and minus his right eye. And after that they even had to send to him a real hospital. So Hanrahan said, “Next time somebody goes down like that, that'll be it. You useless hogs will suck each other’s dicks while the blacks get double gym time for basketball.”
So Coughlin decreed it: “Now we play through the pain boys.” Pinkhands, who was a trustee, would steal the frozen ground beef from the kitchen we'd use as icepacks.
Rule 2. Which was around long before they needed Rule 1: The puck’s always live. No time outs. Constant action. The game never stopped unless the puck went under the equipment cage on the far side of the gym. When this happened one of the screws would have to get up off his lolly ass and open the metal gate to retrieve the puck. Now, the important thing to understand here was that the puck remained live even when it went under the wooden bench the officers sat on during games. The drill was that the screws covering the gym—usually Morton and Salazar—would leap up whenever the puck went under the bench so the guys could fight over the puck until somebody dug it out. The officers—at least Morton and Salazar—knew the deal. Plus, they got a kick out of seeing us beat the living crap out of each other up close. So when the puck went under the bench (about three times a game), the screws ran for the hills.
(The only other rule, so minor it didn’t have a number, was that the blacks didn't play floor hockey. But that was less a rule than a simple fact, because the blacks, according to Coughlin, were scared pissless to play with us barbarians. “Same reason they don’t come to Southie. We’re big, white, and hairy, baby!”)
And so, like I said, things were good for a while. Nobody ever fessed up to being hurt, nobody went to the choke. So maybe it was surprising that it was rule 2, the old rule, that caused Hanrahan to finally ban hockey after all the trouble they went through to enforce Rule 1. And it was Coughlin who did it—even though, as the facts will tell, he didn't break his own rule.
It was a tight game, only four minutes left before count call. Charlestown was up by one. Coughlin was having an off day; he hadn’t scored. For a big man he had a strange grace going after the puck. He moved with a real fluid motion as if he really was on ice skates. I played for Southie, defense. Though I’m nearly as big as Coughlin, I’m not an agressive a guy. I’m here on a murder one, crime of passion, my lawyer called it, long story, actually not that long. It happened fast. They say everybody has it in him to kill once. Anyway, I rarely moved all that much during games. I just stood there in front of our goal and blocked more shots with my bulk than my stick. A lot of times my head wouldn't even be that much in the game because I was too busy just watching Coughlin. He’d thread through a bunch of guys, twirl like some hulk of a ballerina, and come out with the puck like it was glued to his stick. It was a beautiful sometimes. Coughlin could be a real artist out there, and losing seemed to bring out the best in him. Coughlin never wanted to crush Charlestown; he always wanted them to believe they could beat us. Why would anybody bother otherwise? Coughlin always said you have to give Charlestown some reason to believe.
That day I think Coughlin may have pulled a hamstring or something because he was favoring his left side a bit, but as soon as he heard the first warning bell, five minutes to count, his body seemed to forget about it and he got the hunger back. But Charlestown had some strong players and they were hanging in there; most of them dropped back to defend. Coughlin couldn’t get a decent shot off. They kept deflecting his shots—not only with their sticks, but their shoes, their heads. It was getting bloody down by the goal. Charlestown wanted it for once. And Coughlin with about a minute to go was raging.
One thing to let the people believe, another to let them see God’s face in the score.
A rain of shots one after the other and still Charlestown’s holding—one shot richoets off the top bar of the goal and this time the puck slides under the officer’s bench. And, see, that day a brand new screw was down in the gym and he didn't know the rules. And Morton, the lazy fuck, didn’t bother to tell him. Salazar would have told him. Salazar would have showed him the ropes. But Morton, never. It would have taken too much energy to open his mouth and say, Hey, listen, rook, when the puck goes under the bench, they’ll kill you if you don’t get your ass out of the way, got it? What would it have taken? And so of course when it happened, the twenty year-old puny rookie screw didn't have any sense. Even though Morton was way the hell out of there. Morton was practically in New Hampshire when that puck slid under the bench. The kid didn't move. Even with Coughlin heading right toward him, the kid still didn't have sense. I’m a guard, the kid thinking, I’m wearing a uniform. Two hundred thirty-five pounds of Denny Coughlin barreling his way and the kid sits there on on a picnic. Coughlin couldn’t stop and he popped the kid so hard the kid’s head mulched against the concrete wall like a kicked-in pumpkin. And it was bad. Morton, who knew damn well Coughlin was only going for the puck—fucked him anyway. That should be Rule 4: They’ll fuck you. Don't ever believe they won’t. Morton got on his radio and called an an emergency B single assault on an officer. It didn’t take more than sixty seconds for Hanrahan to burst in with six helmets from the Special Operations Response Team, plastic shields in one hand, wombats in the other. And the SORTs went right for Coughlin. He didn’t even resist them. He just lay down on the floor not covering his head with his hands, almost as though he was relaxing, day at the beach. Kick away boys, I’m your meat. Kick away. But, hear this, Coughlin, even on the floor, even getting his teeth kicked in by the toes of the SORT screws boots—still spoke up for the game, for us: “Puck’s always live. Puck’s only dead when it goes in the cage! All we got is hockey.” And when they dragged him away by his pits and he was nearly unconscious, his blood wandering across the gym floor, he kept spluttering that he didn't need to go the choke, that he was fine, absolutely fucking fine. Salerno told us what happened after. He had his contacts. They couldn't save him in the choke so they had him airlifted him to Mass General. But that was only a formality. That was only covering their asses. Coughlin was brain dead before he left Cedar Junction.
Peter Orner is the author of the novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a collection, Esther Stories, Finalist for the Pen Hemingway Award. He currently lives in northern Wisconsin, a few miles south of Lake Superior.
by Scott Loring Sanders
followed by Q&A
Henry’s pale skin burned in the sun. He hadn’t eaten in five days. He hadn’t slept in three. Not one wink. And other than the fishing rod in his hand and the tackle box next to him in the dirt, he’d pawned everything he owned. Everything. When Jad, his oldest buddy from high school, had kicked him out of his place that morning, Henry had nowhere else to go, so he grabbed his fishing gear and hitchhiked down to the river. And that’s where he sat now, on a rotting sycamore log, his sneakers nudging at a faded and cracked plastic cup that had once contained night crawlers.
“That’s it, man,” Jad had said a few hours before. “Get out. You can’t crash here anymore. You haven’t paid me shit in two weeks.”
Henry hadn’t protested. The only thing he said, after he grabbed his rod from the corner of the trailer’s living room, was, “Can you hook me with a few bucks for a bag? I’ll pay you as soon I get some cash. I’ve got some coming from Jackhammer soon.”
“Look in a mirror and tell me if you need another bag.”
And Henry did just that. He went into the bathroom (carrying his rod with him because he thought Jad might steal it otherwise) and took a piss. After zipping up, he saw someone in the mirror he didn’t recognize. His face had turned the gray of fuzzy vegetable mold, and the upper parts of both cheeks were scabbed and pocked. Several of his teeth had fallen out, and the ones that remained were yellowed and rotting. And his eyes…he refused to look directly into his eyes.
He walked out and mumbled to Jad, “Yeah, I think I need another bag. Just one to get me through.”
“Jesus, you gotta go. You’re totally whacked.”
“Just a few bucks. Come on, man, please.”
“Get out, Henry,” said Jad as he clamped onto a mop handle, wielding it like an axe.
Henry left Jad’s trailer, walked along the dirt driveway, and eventually grabbed a ride from a junkyard flatbed driver who was on his way to pick up a smashed Subaru down by the river. When the guy dropped him off at the railroad crossing, Henry nodded thanks and then headed over the rough gravel by the side of the tracks, checking his back pocket every five seconds to make sure the pack of Marlboros he’d swiped off the seat hadn’t somehow jumped out and run away.
After rigging his pole with a frog-patterned Jitterbug, he lit a cigarette. The book of matches he found in his pocket only had three remaining, so he built a fire before casting. And though the early morning August sun was already beating down on the wide expanse of the New River, he had gone into survival mode. He had a full pack of smokes and only three matches. Unless he wanted to jumpstart a new cigarette before the previous one burned-out, he had to plan ahead.
Between the sun burning his skin, and the heat of the fire on his back, Henry knew he should be perspiring. But there was nothing in his body to sweat out. And every time a tiny drop beaded on his forehead, he swiped it with his finger and sucked it, hoping that maybe there were at least a few residual traces of crystal within.
He tried to remember how long it had been since he’d snorted the last of it, but he’d lost track of time months ago. He knew he’d been at Jad’s, it was dark outside—he did recall that—and he’d been staring at the TV, but at what show, he couldn’t remember. He knew by the pounding in his head that he needed more, and quickly, but he also knew there was none to be had. But he checked every pocket of his jeans several times over anyway.
And then the voices started. He’d heard the voices a few times before, and each time he’d walked to the pawnshop and parted with his last remaining possessions: his stereo; the rifle his father had forgotten when he walked out on Henry and his mother years earlier; and the antique Bowie knife his grandfather had left him after he died. But all he had now was the fishing rod and a tackle box stuffed with rusty-hooked lures. And he knew the bastard at the pawn shop wouldn’t give him shit for it.
So the voices began, softly at first, but getting louder and louder until they screamed and shrieked with such intensity that Henry wanted to split his head open with one of the rocks from the fire ring and strangle the voices within. He picked his nose and sucked off anything that clung to his fingers. Mostly it was the black crusts of dried blood, but he ate it anyway, imagining that he felt a faint burn on his tongue from the bitter chemical. He took his thumbs and pushed them deep against his eyelids to relieve pressure. He balled his hands into fists and knuckled them against his temples.
He walked to the edge of the river, cupped his hands, and took a few swallows of water, watching as a crawdad propelled itself backwards under the bottom of a rock. A few copper minnows glimmered in a beam of sunlight and stared at him with blank, stupid looks, the way fish will do. They laughed at him and said, “Look at you. You’re nothing but a junkie.” And then they darted off when Henry angrily smacked the surface.
Henry dried his hands on his pants leg and lit a cigarette, using a flimsy twig that stuck out from the fire. He sat back down on the log, grabbed the fishing rod he still hadn’t cast, and convinced himself that the water had done the trick. The voices had subsided, at least momentarily.
But the screeches immediately began again: metal on metal, distant at first, but steadily growing louder. It was only when he turned away from the glass of the river and looked behind him that he saw the coal train flashing through the oaks and sycamores, the sides of the cars flickering through the trunks of the trees like strobe lights. But as the rhythmic clicking of the cars whooshed by, only fifty yards away from where Henry sat, he realized that the craving, the yearning for the crystal, had indeed subsided. When the back engine pushed the rest of the cars by, and the hum got swallowed by the mountains of the Blue Ridge, Henry tossed his butt into the fire and closed his eyes.
The sun helped to awaken him. He found himself lying in the cool dirt near the riverbank as a faint hint of wood-smoke crept into his burned-out nostrils. He pushed off the log next to him, struggled to an upright position, brushed off the needles and debris, and looked at the sun sitting low in the sky. He didn’t know if it was morning or evening. Birds chirped from the surrounding trees, and a pair of squirrels played tag in the sprawling branches of an oak above him.
He turned to the blackened remains of his extinguished campfire. With a stick, he poked at the ashes, finding a few embers barely clinging to life. He gathered some pine needles and dead leaves, dropped them on the coals, and began blowing with a smooth, methodical breath, the way his grandfather had taught him when they used to go bird hunting together. As the flames caught, he added more twigs, then thicker sticks, and finally a broken branch.
Other than the twitters of the birds and a subtle flit-flit as the fire worked on the branches, the surrounding forest was silent. The smoke climbed vertically toward the sky in a tight, organized column. Everything was calm; the river hardly seemed to flow. Henry determined, mainly because of the dead fire, that it must be morning and that he’d slept all night. He confirmed it shortly thereafter when he noticed the sun slightly higher above the tree-line.
Henry settled himself on the log, lit a cigarette, and looked out at the water. The softness of the morning light comforted him. The faint wisps of river fog, like translucent wraiths, floated and burned away as the sun worked its magic. A shaft of orange light stretched across the expanse of the New and lit up a hula-hoop patch of water in front of Henry. The circle helped to clearly expose everything, another entire world, that existed below the surface. Flecks of gold sparkled in frozen suspension, bits of leaves and other organic debris floated and turned in slow motion, and a caddis fly emerged to the surface. The insect created microscopic ripples as it furiously attempted to dry its wings. After a minute or two of struggle, the little bug rose off the water and fluttered away, rising higher and higher toward heaven until it disappeared.
And then, as if a symphony conductor had synchronized it, there were thousands of caddis flies across the river; greenish-white clouds appeared where only seconds before there was nothing. Suddenly, the conductor instructed the symbols to crash; the water boiled as smallmouth bass started feeding. Henry watched the performance with fascination.
But then his head began to snap and buzz. The voices started once more, though they weren’t nearly as intense as the previous day. Henry grabbed a handful of damp stones from the river’s edge and began flinging them, one by one, across the water. But the rocks were clunky and didn’t skip well. So instead, he plopped them into the circle of light as he fought the ripping in his head. The stones squiggled and darted, appearing drunk—if rocks could appear drunk—as they descended to the bottom. Rock…break…bottom. Rock…break…bottom. Henry became obsessed.
A faint whistle in the distance finally awoke him from his trance; a train was approaching. As he listened, he realized he’d fought through the voices again and felt better. As he looked at the tracks, awaiting the approach of the distant engine, off to his right he saw a flicker in his peripheral vision. It took him a moment to zero-in on the movement, but when he did, and his eyes focused, in the shadows he located a doe, her brown tail twitching occasionally, showing glimpses of white. Her head was bowed to the ground as she foraged through the detritus of the forest. Henry clicked with his cheek and she sprang to attention. Her head cocked up, neck extended, as she looked back toward him. She appeared to see him but didn’t act alarmed. Henry stood perfectly still and admired her grace and beauty. After a moment, she took a few steps closer to the train track embankment before eating again.
Henry placed some sticks on the fire but never took his eyes off the deer. The metallic sound of the train got louder as it rolled closer. Suddenly he realized that on either side of the doe, not more than four feet away, were two more deer, also rummaging for food along the forest floor. They had materialized out of nowhere.
The train whistled again, this time much louder, and the rumble and clicking along the tracks began its rhythmic, hypnotic beat. One of the deer that had recently appeared, along with the one Henry had first spotted, propped their heads to attention when the whistle screeched, but the other continued eating as if she didn’t have a care in the world. As the metronomic hum of the train got louder, the two alert deer effortlessly bounded up the small hill and over the tracks to the other side. They stared at Henry as they stood in the open sunshine.
To his left, the engine turned the corner as the headlight peeked through the trees about a hundred yards away. When he looked back to the doe, it was no longer there. Up the hill, the other two deer across the tracks still looked back in Henry’s direction. And then, just a little farther down, he spotted the solitary doe, standing in the middle of the tracks, her head down and seemingly foraging for something between the crossties, but for what, Henry couldn’t imagine. Henry glanced to his left as the train drew dangerously near, then back to the deer on the tracks, and repeated the process as if watching a tennis match. Henry waved his arms and screamed, “Get off the tracks. What the hell’re you doing? Get off the tracks.”
As the engine screamed past him, the doe still remained stationary. She finally looked up, but the train was already on top of her. The engine skewed Henry’s sight, so he didn’t see the impact, but he felt just as sick as if he had. He couldn’t do anything except watch as car after car flashed by in front of him. He had already started running toward the foot of the hill but now waited futilely as the endless train kept rolling by. Brown painted steel, crested with mounds of chunked coal, whipped past as the wind stung his face. When the rear engine finally passed and the train disappeared once more into the mountains, Henry looked down the vacant and lonely strip of track. Everything had gone hauntingly quiet. The birds still sang, but nothing else stirred. He saw no sign of the doe, no mangled pieces, no destroyed and bloody carcass. He looked across the tracks and saw the other two deer, now a little farther up the mountainside, feeding once more, their tails casually twitching.
Henry climbed the little embankment and stood on the railroad ties, the thick, sweet smell of creosote filling his damaged nose. Patches of black tar on the wood already cooked in the heat. The silver steel of the tracks gleamed. And then, just on the other side, in the bottom along the gravel and rocks that formed the foundation for the tracks, he saw the third deer—standing, her head upright, her tail hanging down, perfectly content as if nothing had happened.
The doe slowly made her way toward her companions, and when they’d regrouped, they trekked up the slope of the mountainside as quietly as an owl on the wing. Henry kept his eyes on them until they melted into the landscape. He wondered if the doe had ever realized how dangerously close she had been to dying.
As Henry stood on the tracks, he looked around and soaked up the beauty surrounding him: the lush mountains; the cobalt sky sprayed with white cumulus clouds; the glimmer of the river below; his little fire sending off a gray stream through the trees; the buzzing of grasshoppers in the high weeds. He felt alive.
He spied a huge thicket of blackberry bushes running along the opposite side of the tracks, and, for the first time in nearly a week, a pang of hunger stirred in his gut. He dropped into the bottom, spilling a little cascade of gravel down the embankment in front of him, and immediately began popping the purplish-black fruit into his mouth. The sweet-sour juice trickled from his lips and down his chin as he voraciously picked and stuffed. He ate like a feral dog. He ate like a man who hadn’t ingested anything but pure chemical for a week.
When Henry got back to the fire, he dropped a few more sticks on the flames, picked the tiny seeds from his teeth, and then went for a drink. He noticed his fingers, stained a deep purple, as he cupped his hands to the river and drank. He began scrubbing them in the water, rubbing them with sand and pebbles. He then removed his clothing and waded into the water. He put sand in his hair and massaged it into his scalp. A coarse rock from the river’s bottom became his washcloth. As he washed, bits of his old, gray skin fell to the surface and mingled with the transparent exuviae of the caddis flies.
When he walked out, he stood by the fire and let it dry him. He then got dressed, sat on the log, and lit a cigarette. He had decided he would finally cast his rod when the voices returned once more. This time they didn’t come softly; they came with abandon and raged violently. Blood pulsed and throbbed along his temples, and pain pierced into every recess of his skull. He thought he might vomit. He dropped his cigarette and tried to drink some water, but his hands shook so violently that he couldn’t manage a sip.
Visions of his screaming father flashed through his mind, telling him what a no good son-of-a-whore he was. He opened his eyes to make the visions go away, but they refused. He closed his eyes, but they persisted. Relentlessly. He used the heels of his hands and ground them into his eye sockets, slightly relieving the pressure, but he was sick. He needed a hit. He had to have a bump of crystal or he thought he’d go insane. If he wasn’t there already.
He grabbed his rod, his tackle box, and the dwindling pack of smokes. He didn’t bother to extinguish the fire. When he reached the tracks, he began walking back in the direction he’d originally come from, where the junkyard man had dropped him off. The pointy chunks of gravel stung the bottoms of his feet as they pushed through the worn soles of his sneakers. The voices continued screaming, and twice he doubled over as the steel bristles of a wire brush viciously stabbed and scraped at his insides.
When he made it to the road, he walked toward town. He tried to hitchhike, but every car passed without slowing. He cursed each one of them for not stopping. He cursed them for the way they glanced below their sun visors, took a peek, and then quickly turned away as if they’d seen some horrible aberration. He cursed the world, his life, and the goddamn voices that refused to leave him alone. “Feed us,” they said. “Feed us you son-of-a-bitch.”
The bells above the door jingled. The pawnbroker looked up and smiled when he saw the familiar, haggard, drawn-out face of Henry.
“What can you give me for these?” said Henry as he placed the rod and tackle box on the counter. “I need at least fifteen.”
The pawnbroker smiled again, knowing that he wouldn’t offer more than five. And he also knew, without question, that Henry would take it.
Scott Loring Sanders is the author of two novels published by Houghton Mifflin, The Hanging Woods and Gray Baby. He was a fiction award winner in The Atlantic Monthly's Student Writing Contest, was chosen as the Writer-in-Residence at the Camargo, Foundation in Cassis, France, and has twice been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In addition to publishing in various literary magazines, his mystery stories frequently appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He lives in Virginia and teaches writing at Ferrum College and Hollins University.
Q&A with Scott Loring Sanders
Tell us a little bit about this piece.
I wrote this story while I was a fellow at the Camargo Foundation in France. I'd taken a break from the novel I was working on, and I was also reading Raymond Carver at the time. As often happens when writing, I found myself trying to mimic Carver in certain ways, though I don't think anyone in their right mind would ever compare this story to any of his stories. I'm afraid he's way out of my league.
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
A giant slice of New Jersey style (not New York) pizza
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
Two places—The Calanques in Cassis, France and Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
I've read Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Chekov, and Dostoevsky but I wouldn't say they've had a profound influence on me. My big influences are Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner, and Ron Rash among a million others.
The Letter Writer
By Anne Sanow
Followed by Q&A
The minister’s green pencil hovers along the lines of script he is reading. Years of experience have shown him that when he is besieged—and he is besieged constantly this autumn, every day the fresh possibility of retreat in Africa and then Magda in the evening greeting him with her sour face and imperious, wounded tones—he is calmed only by some task both methodical and brute. He will sleep three hours tonight if he is lucky. The insomnia of a king. He skims the pencil through a blocky paragraph. With an impatient hand he strikes out the second and third use of the word “glorious.” He makes a check mark in the left margin to indicate the need for background dialogue. On the right, a notation about lighting. It is a mountains-and-peasant saga he is reading, nothing exceptional to it; it is serviceable, he can tell after merely a few pages, the writer working a simple melodramatic formula by rote. Under the circumstances, serviceable is perhaps not the worst option.
At the window, a banner flaps in the air like an elegant carbon wing. The street is hushed at this hour and the lights are extinguished. The minister’s room is a model of propriety in Berlin, windows shaded to obscure the glow of the single desk lamp he requires to see. This austerity belies the grandness of the house he occupies with his family—a former Prussian palace, complete with ballroom. Long hallways, hung with paintings, an absence of German kitsch. He has his wife’s impeccable taste to thank for that, though these days he thanks her for little else.
November 1942. The minister is forty-five years old. His recent birthday observed with little fanfare. Magda’s will be tomorrow, celebrated quietly with a small party at home: the children, minus Harald who is currently flying out of Naples (the minister knows, but does not tell his wife, of her eldest son’s—his stepson’s—location). Perhaps, as in other years, the Führer will join them.
He reads and the images roll through his brain. Blue sky panned wide to catch the sparkling tip of a peak. The sweep down grassy slopes, which if shot well will carry the viewer along as if riding in a gondola. Title curlicued on the side of a thatched hut—No, he jots simply; overdone. But then it is all clumsily set down by this writer, a person who has patterned his work on that which has already been sanctioned, and there is nothing new here for the minister to imagine. In half an hour’s time he skims through the rest, disappointed to find not even a small dash at nonconformity, nothing, no rebellion or individuality even in the punctuation following the actors’ dialogue.
Which rebellion, were there any, he would censure.
It is a pity, he thinks. Back in his university days, in Bonn and Heidelberg and Munich, the brave ideas flowed quick and hot, to turn to fire in the streets, the pounding of many feet marching in unison, himself awash with the glory of a new faith, belief in a pured new world. (“Glorious,” he muses—he must check himself.) O my strong, glowing, mighty faith, he wrote then. O companion on my journey; preparer of the path . . . He has forsaken literary pursuits for this thing he finds he was created for, this role of a lifetime, a creation of his own shaping more convoluted and faceted than any role an actor might play. He has few companions, and though he would censure them, he mourns their loss.
The flap of the banner again, at the corner of his eye, reminds him of the hour. He is alone with himself, which is the most dangerous thing to be.
He closes his eyes and is presented with a different scene, unbidden, this time the sharp roar of engines flying low over a parched encampment under desert skies, flash and flak, earth zippered open and the wrack of burning metal. The wrong bodies on the ground. Cover, cover—but his hands over his ears can do nothing, his green pencil useless.
He can rewrite a script for a film, but he cannot rewrite his own story.
Enough, he tells himself. It should not be so difficult to find the thing he needs for relief. He will return to the script later.
On his desk are also stacks of files: general business, such as recommendations, requests, and correspondence, he leaves at the office. Here is where his true interests lie. He unsnaps the string around the first folder and takes a letter from the stack—from the middle, randomly, as if he has all the time in the world.
A graceful German “Mädchen” type of true freshness; she has a pretty, winning face. From her dance schooling and theatrical chorus experience, she brings lightness and control to her movements . . . pupil of Frau Meier, with the occasional lapse into the regimented “walk” and posture we have come to expect from those we have seen under her tutelage.
—H. Bahr, 2 Sept. 1942
He glances at the accompanying photograph, flips to the notes he made while watching the test reels back in—September? Yes? He rubs his eyes. Two months—more—since this young hopeful was brought from her training course. (Actually he should ascertain her age: noted here is twenty-two.) Two months now since she was permitted finally to pit herself against the camera, which for many can be a battle they will lose. The camera is a capricious lover. It teases and toys, then harshly reveals. What have we here? the minister asks himself. He flips to the notes he made.
And now he is in his element, for when he writes he imprints what he has seen and it is transformed into the indelible. The photograph could be any girl; so many are alike in his view. Yes, Herr Bahr: I see a pretty and winning face. That is all fine and good. He drops the photograph to the desktop. Images are more necessary for others than they are for him. Glancing instead at his tiny, sharp script, the girl blossoms in his mind into a moving creature, now skipping into a dance line, now warbling Lola, taking a little breath to smooth her skirt, catch her breath. A shift into pensive mode with a dramatic soliloquy. The scene jumps to a meadow, where the girl could be playing the maiden in the script he has just been reading. He is following the reel as he saw it exactly in his mind, prompted by his words on the page.
And then: Magda’s voice, murmuring, Magda clapping politely and nodding her approval. The minister blinks. The reel turns itself off. Yes, we are always in need of simple chorines like this, his notes tell him. He has forgotten that these recommendations, this batch of young women, were paraded before his wife as well. The Baarova woman is long sacrificed (then he had written, the wildest life is the most beautiful!) but penance is nevertheless extracted from him whenever Magda wishes it.
And what does Magda know?
She has had affairs of her own, it is rumored. (But why, he wonders, is she irreproachable?) Her grace and smoothness have rescued him publicly many times. The Führer himself is enamored of her, was there when they married, negotiated the truce between them. The runted Mussolini gazed up at her golden visage in awe. Magda knows she is not replaceable. She has his career, his life, on a tether. She has borne him six children.
He thumbs the photograph of the girl again and then turns it face down. Outside the pock pock pock pock of someone walking in the street below, long past curfew. And now the light shift of the floorboards outside his office door. The hairs stand rigid on his neck, and he feels, ridiculously, as caught out as a disobedient child.
It is his own child, his firstborn, trespassing at the door. His favorite. She has had her father’s ear from the time she could walk. As an infant she was pulled onto the Führer’s lap and her eyes darted from face to face as the men talked late into the night. Fleetingly the minister wonders: what does she know, what did she comprehend then? What will she bring forward to a better time? His lovely, intelligent Helga Susanne, now ten years old.
“Papa,” she says, twisting the door handle closed behind her as she slides in from the dark hallway. Her smooth face is dented with a line from her pillowcase.
“It is very late, my girl.”
She nods gravely. “They are all asleep.”
“As should you be.”
“I cannot sleep,” she tells him.
Neither coyness nor panic in her voice. She has always been direct in her insubordinations, a girl who faces life as levelly as a straight-edge rule. Her father sighs, lays the pencil on top of the photograph with the point exactly at two o’clock. “What is it then,” he says to her. He knows he will find it difficult to be stern.
Helga pads softly to the desk and leans her elbow against it, clasps her hands. She looks at the neat pile of script papers and then travels her gaze around to the open folder, the letters clipped with notations, the miles and miles of his crabbed little notes that could be shaken out into a line long enough to encircle the Eastern front. She takes her time with her visual journey, leaning there, and finally arrives at her father’s face.
“Well?” he prompts, his expression solicitous.
“I know,” she says.
He can’t think of what she means, but he is caught by a sudden chill.
“Papa. I know.”
The wildest life—he meant that, then. A white boat gliding in the river, beneficent sunlight, the Baarova woman (he can no longer think of her as Lida) with her head in his lap, the children laughing and swinging their legs from the deck.
“You are sending us away again because of the bombing, aren’t you,” his daughter says, watching his eyes.
Such relief, he cannot believe it. Here is a query from a child—well, almost a query, considering it is Helga putting it to him—and this is something he can account for, someone he can soothe. He will not lie to her, though he will lie by omission to the others.
“Yes, that is true,” he tells her. “But it will all be over soon.” This, like a miracle, he suddenly and fully believes.
Back to the letters. He will complete this task tonight.
Flip her over again, there is her bright smiling face. Soft waves of hair with a braid. Bow at the neck of her blouse. Madlen Mai. No siren in the making here. What she is, is what he declares everyone wants—oh, and they do, they do. They flock to watch fresh girls like this dancing and singing and weeping and marrying. Waving their soldiers off to war. Carrying babies. Baking bread. Wrapping themselves in any color they are told to wear. Magda knows this. And she knows that his deepest desires require a different satisfaction. Well: he will not override his wife in this case, but he will circumvent.
He himself has never cared for blondes.
He writes his response:
Subject does indeed have highly photogenic features, in regular sittings. However, in each of five test shots in movement her facial features can be seen to pinch inward (ref. Roll 6, frames 287 – 963). Figure is slim but requires padding of the bustline for balance. After half a year, she must undergo another test, to decide whether she has become more concentrated in her close-ups and whether her articles of apprenticeship can go any further.
—J. Goebbels, 10 Nov. 1942
(Somewhere in the city this young woman is turning over in her sleep. Why should she concern him?)
Now the minister taps the eraser of his pencil on the stationary pad—one, two, three.
It is a respite he is seeking, a small reward he feels he should not deny himself: it will be only like a carrot, a small thing held out as encouragement. A thing so insignificant, what man could complain? He laughs to himself a little, thinking of the carrot he will permit himself. A modest prize, an indulgence befitting totaler Krieg. It is entirely suitable. He is, in fact, leading by example. He is a fucking saint.
A mere plaything. That is all he requires.
He finds the carrot that will placate him near the end of the stack of letters: she is almost an afterthought. The photograph is of a Fraülein Schildt, an undistinguished girl with light brown hair whose recommendation from Herr Bahr is mild. Almost, nearly, the minister passes by without clicking on the reel in his head. But then he is caught by a small, precise check in his notes—second seq., fourth left—and his mind flowers up once more. He has left himself a clue. There she is. Waiting. Dark hair like the sheen of a crow. Dark eyes tilted restlessly to the lens, knowing she has but a flick of a second before the Schildt girl canters in front of the chorus line, obscuring those left behind. He reels through it one more time, utterly confident he has got it right.
He will, naturally, conceal his deed by issuing the invitation to both girls; the other can be easily dismissed. His final missive of the evening is brief and to the point, a gentle reproof of Herr Bahr’s abilities that will nevertheless be received as a brute directive. The minister feels the blood glide through his veins as he writes, becalming his body in preparation for, at last, a bit of rest. He writes:
In Frlns. Schildt and Vesela certain assets have perhaps been overlooked. They are lively and willing, if not yet adequate for leading roles. Recommend both subjects for further evaluation and request that meetings be arranged at your earliest convenience.
—J. Goebbels, 10 Nov. 1942
He lays his pencil down, taking a peaceful delight in this small wickedness. It is three o’clock. The house is still and fortified, and the streets below spread out into a grid of order and pride, a solid, obedient map of the new world in the making. The minister stretches his fingers and turns his wrists to loosen them. The visions quiet in his mind. It is not yet time for the first birds to stir in the gardens, but when they do he and his wife will awaken and when the sun rises the children will rush in altogether crying birthday greetings Mama! Mama! He and Helga will exchange a knowing wink. And in the evening, when they gather round and the candles glow, his smile will be absolutely genuine.
Anne Sanow is the author of the story collection Triple Time, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for fiction. Her stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Dossier, and Shenandoah, among others, and she is currently working on a novel.
Q&A with Anne Sanow
What can you tell us about the inspiration for this piece?
In researching the German film industry during WWII, I naturally enough came across Joseph Goebbels’ diaries and letters. And as a fiction writer drawn to history, the challenge of writing close to the perspective of a megalomaniac became hard to resist.
If you were a food, what would it be?
I think I would be a lemon.
If you encountered a traveler from space, what place on Earth would you advise him or her to visit?
Difficult to choose just one place, so I think I would have them drive the Pacific Coast Highway down California, and then hop-skip or time-warp or whatever over to Route 90 through South Dakota, which is just littered with under-appreciated marvels.
Who are your writing influences?
So many—but those more or less constantly wending their way through my brain, bothering me in some good way and making me want to write, are: Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Hazzard, W. G. Sebald, Mary Swan, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Edward P. Jones, Alistair MacLeod, and Kathryn Davis.
Another Little Piece
by Kevin Wilson
followed by Q&A
My mother sent me a flyer for a self-help group. I’d come back from work, the dense, chemical tang of bug spray in my hair and on my clothes, and there was a small note attached to the flyer that said, “Give this a chance, Oscar. You can meet lots of people who work just as good as you, who do without and deserve to be happy.” I put it in the drawer of my desk and sat on the couch and tried to forget about it for a little while, though I knew I’d end up going. I was getting desperate.
The group was called Missing Ourselves, and it met every week at the community center in Birmingham, two and a half hours south of where I was living. The group was for people who had lost pieces of themselves, arms or legs or even just a finger, and were trying to cope with this as best as they could. It sounded like AA for amputees, but I memorized the address, time, and room number, and spent the next few days spraying houses for termites and trying not to get too excited.
When I was in junior high, I got hit by a drunk driver while I was standing in the crosswalk at school. I lost my left ear, my left arm up to the elbow, most of my left foot, and I broke a whole bunch of things inside of me. After that, a tangle of scars across my body and face, I walked kind of side-to-side without getting very far, and people in high school called me Duck-Boy, so it’s not hard to understand why I didn’t get laid one single time. I’d been working odd jobs since I had dropped out of college earlier that year and I still hadn’t slept with anyone and I was lonely as hell. At night, I dreamed about my amputated parts, a voice on the other end of the phone, calling me late at night and saying, “You probably don’t believe this, but I miss you just as much as you miss me.”
Before the first meeting, I had prepared myself for disappointment, for a room filled with sad, weepy people saying dumb things like “half the man I used to be.” The meeting was at the community center, and, down the hall, I could hear the yells and grunts of the Tae Kwon Do class that shared the building on Wednesday nights. The door of the meeting room had a sign with a drawing of a man on crutches and missing his right leg and a woman with an eye patch. Both of them had bright red hearts in the middle of their bodies. I walked inside the room and there were people missing their legs, lots of stumps where hands should be, and a whole lot of people who seemed less like a person and more like what is left of a person when things go real wrong. I thought about going back to my car and driving home, but a man who was missing the lower part of his face waved me over to a seat beside him. And for a second, I felt that kind of quick joy of being invited to something, anything, and it was enough to keep me there in that room.
We went around the circle, each person saying their name and how they came to be there. It sounded like “I’m Jeff and I got my right arm bit off by a shark on my honeymoon” or “My name is Vickie and I was driving and I got tired and when I came to, both my legs were gone” or “Charlie…just born this way.” And then it got to a woman that I hadn’t noticed until right then, but she had long, wavy brown hair and deep green eyes and her mouth was curled up on one side, like she thought something was real funny but no one else would understand. She was tapping her right foot on the floor, even and steady, like she was keeping time with her heartbeat. Just a few feet away from me, she seemed so beautiful, with so many perfect things about her, that when I finally noticed that her arms were missing, it seemed like nit-picking, looking hard for imperfection.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Betty and I got this arm,” she gestured to her right side with her chin, “torn off in a car accident.” She didn’t say anything for a while, and it seemed as if she was finished talking until she blinked rapidly and sat up straight. “Oh, and I got depressed after I got out of the hospital and I drank too much and lay down on some train tracks and did this,” she said, gesturing to her other missing arm. She thought for a second, looking up at the ceiling and finally she said, “And I’m glad to be here today.”
During the break, we all drank coffee out of paper cups and ate cookies as best as we could with the things we had left. Betty was still sitting, smiling at people who came by to talk. I waddled over to her just as an old woman with a glass eye was saying to her, “Honey, you could be a model. I’m serious; you are that pretty.” Betty looked away and said, “No, I couldn’t. I tried to get into modeling before all of this happened and they said I didn’t have it, that I lacked something essential. So I’m sure I lack even more of that now.”
The woman touched Betty’s shoulder, shook her head, and walked off. Now it was just Betty and me and three cookies balanced on my upturned palm. I held them out for her and she smiled, leaned forward and took one between her teeth. She threw her head back and started chewing, a few crumbs scattering across her shirt. “In a pinch, I can eat with my feet,” she said, “if I really want to impress people. But I don’t think it would get much attention here.”
She nodded at the empty seat beside her and I sat down. I brought my hand up awkwardly to my face and ate the second cookie. I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I just stared down at the last cookie, powdered sugar dusting the lines of my palm.
“So you were pretty young when all that happened?” she asked me.
“I wonder if that’s easier or not,” she said.
“Than what?” I asked.
“Than losing something as an adult. It seems like if you’re a kid, you still have time to relearn skills. I mean, I was twenty-nine when this happened and it’s taken five years just to get to this.”
“It was easy enough for me, I guess,” I said. “I figured it out for the most part and they made me take a lot of physical therapy. But it was hard in school, you know. Got teased a lot.”
“Oh, right. I forgot about other kids. But you’re handsome. You’ve got nice blue eyes and a strong jaw line.”
“But no ear,” I said, gesturing to my missing left ear.
“You don’t want a perfect face. Where’s the fun in that?”
I took a bite from the last cookie and then offered her the other half. She opened her mouth and I fed her the piece.
“It’s not always like this,” she said. “I have a prosthesis. I just didn’t want to wear it here, felt like I shouldn’t. Normally, I can feed myself.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
A few other people came over and sat with us, a woman who’d had a mastectomy and an older man, a farmer who’d gotten his hand caught in a thresher. There seemed to be as many farm equipment accidents as car accidents when people told their stories. At the end of the meeting, we all sat back in the circle of chairs for the final words. The founder of the group, a woman in her late-forties who’d lost her right leg trying to climb Mt. Everest, asked us to make a bond with the people on either side of us, however we could to ensure contact. I placed my hand on the farmer’s shoulder and looked over at Betty. She brought her face close to mine and we stood cheek to cheek. Then the founder said, “We are not the things we have lost. We are still the people we have always been, only stronger.”
I couldn’t hear the rest, couldn’t focus on anything but Betty’s skin touching mine. Her hair smelled of coconut and I could feel her eyelashes occasionally flutter against my face. When the founder had finished, a few people started clapping in whatever way they could, and we all smiled. Betty pulled away from me and I tried to act as if this did not matter.
Outside the community center, I asked Betty how she was going to get home.
“Oh, I took the bus,” she said. “I’ve got my pass attached to my belt.”
“I can drive you home if you’d like,” I told her. “I drive okay.”
“Well, I trust you,” she said, smiling. “I bet you can drive just fine.”
Inside the car, we talked about how the meeting had gone, the various degrees of the other members. “This sounds terrible,” she said to me, “but a mastectomy isn’t the same thing. There should be a group for those with visible amputations and those without. Let the people with missing toes and whatnot have their own meeting.” I laughed and then felt ashamed for it, turned my face from her.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” she said. “People like us get to laugh at anything we want. It’s a rule.”
I pulled into the driveway of the duplex where she lived. I got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side and opened her door. As she stepped out, she whispered, “I had a good time tonight, though I hadn’t planned on it.”
“I did too,” I said.
“I’d ask you come in, but my husband is probably waiting for me.”
I tried not to look surprised, but my voice cracked softly, a slight hitch, when I said, “You’re married?”
“Yeah,” she said, “but he has all his parts accounted for.”
“Will you come next week?” I asked her.
“Will you?” she replied.
She leaned against me and I could feel the weight of her body resting on mine, which almost made me lose my balance, forced me to put most of my weight on my good foot. She kissed me quickly and then shrugged away from my touch and started walking towards the front door. When she got to the steps of the porch, she turned around and said, “I don’t go around kissing people.”
“I don’t either,” I said.
“Well, let’s keep it that way. See you next week.”
I drove the two and a half hours back to my apartment too fast, speeding along the near-empty highway, the stump of my left arm hanging out the window, cutting through the air, forcing its way past anything that would deny it entry into the place that it wanted to be.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009). His fiction has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere. He lives in Sewanee, TN.
Q&A with Kevin Wilson
Tell us something about “Another Little Piece.”
I find stories and poems about amputees to sometimes be too metaphorically overwrought, and I think this story probably suffers from those same problems, but I was inspired to try after reading a story by Nelson Algren, “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” where the main character, Railroad Shorty, a man missing both of his legs, serves as this vibrating, violent force that no other character in the story can contain.
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
Fried Bologna Sandwich. I would be this type of food because 95% of my actual diet is made up of this single food. I am pretty much made of bologna as it is.
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
Fairyland Caverns at Rock City in Lookout Mountain, GA. Nursery rhyme dioramas painted in fluorescent colors and lit by ultaviolet lights. It is beautiful and terrifying and my favorite place in the entire world.
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
I have read almost nothing of the Russian greats. I've read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. That's about it. The only Russian writer I've read a lot of is Gogol, who I love. I have managed to go most of my adult life pretending to have read the Russian greats while actually reading comic books almost exclusively.
by Roy Kesey
Followed by Q&A
Begin beside the gift shop at the rear entrance of the mausoleum built for Mao in the center of Tiananmen Square. And have you seen him? Perhaps you were just now hurried past the waxy corpse; perhaps you just now squinted at the light of the xenon lamps, just now learned the alleged dimensional tolerance of the plates that conform the crystal coffin, 10 µm, a tenth the size of a mote of dust, astounding, and you laid your rented bouquet as and when indicated, or perhaps not. Perhaps none of this happened. Today it makes no difference.
From the gift shop walk precisely east to the edge of the Square. Cross the avenue, and follow along what once was West Legation Street and now is Dongxijiaominxiang—the longest hutong in the city. Continue on until you reach a four-storey pillared building between the Beijing Public Security Bureau to the south and the Supreme People's Court to the north. This building, once home to the local branch of what was then called the National City Bank of New York, is now the Beijing Police Museum.
Two types of ticket are for sale. One allows you to look at all of the exhibits. The other costs twice as much, but includes a souvenir pin, a key chain bearing a cartoonish yet resolute police officer, and the opportunity to shoot simulated criminals. Buy the more expensive of the two, and bypass for now the Gift Shop—there will be time later for its decals, its iron-ons, its toys made out of bullet shells.
The museum's hundreds of displays hold some two thousand pieces displayed throughout four halls: the Hall of Beijing Public Security History, the Hall of Criminal Investigation, the Hall of the Functions of Different Police Branches, and the Hall of Police Weapons and Equipment. The lack of any language but Chinese in the vast majority of the descriptive placards indicates the museum's target visitor. The relative lack of context on those same placards, and the nature and order of the objects chosen for display, together hint at what Bruce Doar identifies as the museum's central self-set challenge: presenting the Beijing public security apparatus both as venerable, insofar as it is rooted in the traditions of its predecessors from the Qing dynasty and the KMT, and as a key player in the revolutionary process by which the (superstition-shackled) Qing and the (corrupt) KMT were radically overthrown.
All without mentioning politics.
The only object one is welcome to photograph is in the foyer. It is called the Column to the Soul of the Police. This is a stele of sorts, six meters tall, a shaft bearing among many other things in high relief a phoenix and an equally mythological creature called a xiezhi, a sword and a shield, and at the center an illuminated police badge known as the Eye of the Law. Photograph the stele from whatever distance you are able to manage, and then step in close to focus on the Eye. This is what the guards have come to expect.
The exhibits on the first floor deal mainly with certain kinds of beginnings. There is a handsome Japanese cannon selected from among those that fired a 28-round salute from atop a now-vanished stretch of city wall west of Qianmen to celebrate the formal coming-into-existence of the People's Republic of China. There is a photograph of the 1949 founding of the Public Security Bureau in a dilapidated temple. And there are several exhibits detailing the subsequent rounding-up of individuals identified as stragglers, ruffians, hoodlums and despots. Most of these individuals were Taiwanese, but there were also Japanese, French, and Russian nationals involved. The exhibits generally show photographs of the weapons and other equipment confiscated, the criminals' ID cards, the signed confessions, and the Application Forms for Approval of the Death Penalty.
The decade-long Cultural Revolution fits uncomfortably into the narrative this museum wishes to write, and thus is represented by only two elements. The first is a plaque describing the losses suffered: 74 officers (including the Chief of Police) imprisoned as counter-revolutionaries; 974 sent to labor camps; 9685 driven from the force. The second is a small display of photographs from the Xidan Market bombing in 1968, when sixty officers in the very process of being humiliated by Mao's teenaged Red Guard thugs nonetheless raced to join the search for the bomber, whom they identified as an angry farmer from Liaoning.
Prepare yourself to be unsurprised to see that here the 1989 slaughter that began just up the street in Tiananmen goes wholly unmentioned.
The second floor attempts a typology of common criminals and how they fall. Bai Baoshan, Cao Yanqi, Chen Yinghua: the exhibits include photographs of the victim (close-up), of the crime scene (panoramic), of policemen sitting around a table (mid-range), of policemen squatting in a circle (long-range), and of the criminal as he is arrested (close-up once again). In general the sentencing and follow-through are left to your imagination, but notable too are the displays of Qing-era Royal Guard uniforms and equipment, including edged weapons labeled “Devices for Dismembering the Body,” and a photo of a man on which they are being utilized. He no longer has thigh muscles or pectorals or genitals but is apparently still alive.
Note also the collection of whistles.
Exhibits on the next storey up detail additional public security functions including Fire Control and Cultural Market Administration. Admire the oldest domestic-made fire engine in Beijing, an imposing Qing pump-chariot of bronze and wood. Then stand for a time before the Memorial Wall built to honor officers killed in the line of duty. It is built of red sandstone, carved in low relief, stretches up to form the backdrop of both the third and fourth floors, thus closing the historical exhibits and history itself as told by this museum.
The fourth floor holds mainly weapons, both those used by the police and those confiscated from criminals. There is a magnificent assortment of pistols, shotguns, machine guns, knives, machetes, swords and axes. Elsewhere in the confiscated-materials area there are several decks of cards, and a set of dominos, and a fair amount of fake heroin.
And finally, tucked off to one side, you will see something of a Kids' Area. There are games whereby children are induced to look for fingerprints, and to help the police track down criminals by inputting scruffy likenesses into computers. And beside this Area—or perhaps part of it, this is not entirely clear—is the Video Shooting Range.
This is precisely what it sounds like. Smile at the two female guards who stand watch, and ask if you too might play. They will not smile back, but will take your ticket and step aside. The pistol, a .45, semi-automatic and thick-gripped, will be very slightly lighter than you expect. The show begins, and first you will practice on a stationary target; hold low and to the left for best results. Next, slow-moving bulls-eyes will emerge from behind bushes. Their trajectories are uncomplicated, and your confidence will grow. Then you will be asked to fire at video images of actual humans committing simulated crimes, and in general you will not find this difficult: the crimes are violent and the criminals are armed, will shoot at you first if given the opportunity. Near the end, however, there comes a man who does nothing but cower behind his briefcase. Keep him in your sights. Wait for him to do something rash. He will continue to cower, and you will continue to wait, the pistol growing heavier and heavier in your hand until at last the two guards start shouting for you to shoot him. Look at the guards. Look back at the man. He hasn't moved. Shoot him anyway. Shoot him in the face. Who knows what might happen if you don't.
Roy Kesey is the author of three books: the novella Nothing in the World, a historical guide to the Chinese city of Nanjing, and a short story collection called All Over. His work has appeared in several anthologies including Best American Short Stories, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and New Sudden Fiction. He received a 2010 prose fellowship from the NEA, and his debut novel Pacazo will be published by Dzanc Books in January 2011. He currently lives in Peru with his wife and children. (www.roykesey.com)
Q&A with Roy Kesey
What was your inspiration for this piece?
My introduction to the Beijing Police Museum came courtesy of the need to write a short piece about it for a magazine now known as The Beijinger. I'm glad to have had the chance to revisit it at greater length and layering for Prime Number.
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
I already am. It's just a question of which species gets to me first.
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
Certain parts of Detroit, to see if they can handle it.
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
He speaks to me nightly from the grave. No, really.
Dear Writer: Reasons to Love (and Fear) Your Copyeditor
By Carol Fisher Saller
Followed by Q&A
Come a little closer, dears. You see, I understand. I know that as a writer you have mixed feelings about having your work copyedited. You are doubtful and possibly nervous about the process. You would like to know what you can do to prepare for it and what to do if you disagree with the editing. Don’t worry. I’m going to tell you.
Acts of Submission
Excuse me, you say, but is this really necessary? You’ve run the spell checker; you have a degree in English. In fact, come to think of it, every friend you’ve given it to also has a degree in English. You might even have paid a freelance editor before submitting your work. Although it is true that some manuscripts are in excellent shape, in my experience the likelihood that a given project will need no editing bears little relation to the number of times it has been vetted by friends or colleagues or children of the writer. I would go further and venture that if I were to pluck any published story or novel from the library shelf and surreptitiously have it scanned into manuscript form for editing, most copyeditors would still find a fair bit to meddle with.
How can this be?
First, the habits and standards and style manuals of publishers vary. Even more to the point, the preferences and knowledge of manuscript editors vary. A lot. Comma choice alone leaves so much room for discretion that it would be nearly impossible for two editors working independently to punctuate a manuscript of some length in the same way. A certain amount of editing is optional and subjective. Double that for fiction. What one editor considers acceptable is incorrect to another. One reads with his eyes, another with her ears, and they edit accordingly. Some concentrate on logic and flow; some are sticklers for grammar; and some, like an indulgent mother with a sticky toddler, let everything but the most obvious and egregious messes slide by.
Even if all editors were of the same sensibility and training, editing is by nature multitasking, reading at several levels simultaneously—in fact, it’s common for editors to read their manuscripts twice, concentrating on big-picture issues in one reading, details in the other. Inevitably, we are distracted as we read by issues that interest us the most, and, inevitably, we overlook or dismiss some matters as unworthy of attention.
My point is, a manuscript will never be edited the same way twice, and it will never be considered perfect, no matter how many times it’s edited—probably not even by the last person who edited it. (An assigning editor at a famous children’s magazine told me of her exasperation after one of her staff had copyedited the same text in three revisions and kept finding errors. “Stop looking for mistakes!” she yelled. “Think like an editor and just let it go!”)
The second reason that a manuscript must undergo copyediting regardless of its state at submission is that it must be prepared for typesetting. Although a writer under contract is usually given guidelines for formatting and organizing her manuscript, it’s the rare author who follows the guidelines closely enough to deliver a document ready for production. A great deal of the copyeditor’s time must be spent in removing pretty Word styles, redoing weirdly typed block quotations (the kind with tabs at the beginning of every line), and cleaning up whatever else the writer did while trying to be helpful in spite of the guidelines. Writers are endlessly inventive—or ignorant—when it comes to word processing. Years ago, a colleague showed me a book manuscript that consisted of 350 Microsoft Word documents: the author had started a new file each time he reached the bottom of a page.
So when you submit a manuscript (even if your manuscript consists of previously published material—even, I will go further to say, if you are a poet), be prepared for someone to find something that needs changing. And when you read somewhere that writers should try not to take editing “personally,” realize that this is why. A certain amount of copyediting has very little to do with how great a writer you are.
If you work in a specialized area or have unconventional content in your manuscript, prepare to be edited by someone who is not an expert in that area—or a mind reader. If you’re lucky, she will have experience editing related books or articles, but if she hasn’t, she will welcome a page from you with explanations and preferences. (E.g., “The term ‘improvisative’ should not be corrected to ‘improvisational’ or ‘improvisatory.’” Or “Please don’t correct the spellings of place names; they’re supposed to be funny.”)
In light of all this, is it worth the time and money to hire a copyeditor in advance of submitting your work? That depends. On the one hand, if you feel that your writing is in pretty good shape, there’s little point in paying someone to copyedit to a particular style only to have your publisher redo it to a different one. On the other hand, if your readers have been marking a lot of typos and writing “huh?” in the margins here and there, your manuscript might benefit from a pass specifically addressing those kinds of issues.
There are other good reasons to get professional help before submission. If you are submitting work that requires you to identify sources and you aren’t confident that your notes and references are complete and conform to one of the commonly accepted styles (Chicago, AP, APA, etc.), a copyeditor can put things right. If you are unpublished and working on spec, small sloppinesses will make it hard to break in. An editorial eye can tidy up the remaining flaws.
The Waiting Game
While your manuscript is in copyediting—for a day, a week, or sometimes months—it might be difficult for you to keep your hands off it. That’s understandable, and it’s not a terrible thing, but there are two reasons why it would be better if you could let it rest, for now. First, there’s a chance that you’ll merely be duplicating work that your editor is doing, and you’ll only waste her time by asking her to check a list of typos that she’s already corrected. And second, your work will benefit from your gaining a little distance on it. You’ll get a chance soon enough to read the entire thing again when the editing is sent for your approval, and if you’ve been away from it thinking about other things, you’ll return to it with a fresh eye.
It’s possible that even if you’re trying not to think about your manuscript, various corrections, additions, and little improvements will occur to you anyway. Just write them down so you can tend to them when it’s your turn. You might be able to get a sense of whether your copyeditor minds you e-mailing bits and pieces to her while she’s working. I always appreciate having the information right away, so I can incorporate it while the style particular to that project is fully in my mind. Others don’t want the distraction and would rather you make all your corrections later, at one time. Try to respect your editor’s modus operandi.
Occasionally during the down time a writer finds that she’s completely rethinking the piece. It’s the author’s responsibility to alert the copyeditor of the new development the minute it becomes a real possibility. The copyeditor can then decide whether the change in plan is serious enough to warrant running by the boss, the assigning editor, the acquiring editor. The publisher might want to rethink the schedule, and the copyeditor might be asked to put the project aside until everything is resolved. The story will run in a later issue; the novel will deliver in the fall instead of in the spring.
Something you should never do once editing has begun is to make changes to the original e-files in the expectation that you can send them to the copyeditor, who will somehow incorporate this new version into her work. I cannot stress how unreasonable this would be. By the time you send it, she will have spent time cleaning and coding and making countless silent changes to your files. In your new version perhaps you made a change here and there—maybe a dozen tweaks in all—but she will have to start over from scratch, having no way to know what your changes were. (The nature of her electronic cleanup will make a “compare documents” operation nearly useless.) Of course, if I were that editor, and if I were feeling in control and professional, I would just suck it up and deal with the disaster. After all, it’s your work. I want what you want.
But it’s possible that I would be more human than that: it’s possible that I would hate you and lose all interest in your project.
(Just so you know.)
While you were in the process of writing, you may have had the luxury of dawdling. Once your story or novel is in copyediting, the schedule becomes a much more real and serious part of the process, and one that you will have little control over—other than to cause delays when the ball is in your court. Although most writers are eager for their work to appear and will do everything they can to expedite publication, a surprising number are more casual about deadlines and seem to think nothing of racking up significant delays in the return of edited manuscripts or page proofs.
If you are writing for a periodical or any project with a short schedule, the deadlines will be pretty much set in stone; a writer who procrastinates may simply be ignored while her project is either jettisoned or taken over by someone else. So ask when you will be expected to be available to vet the editing or look at proofs, and if anything comes up that you think might interfere with the schedule, give reasonable warning. If your publisher knows in advance about schedule conflicts, she might be able to reshuffle things with typesetters and publicity contacts or move your work to another issue or season. Unexpected holdups will leave everyone in the lurch.
For longer-term projects like books, there are still good reasons to respect your publisher’s schedule, and most of them directly benefit your project. Once a publisher makes a commitment to your book, every department, from editing and design to production and marketing, sets about creating the optimal conditions for its release. The schedule is a small miracle of coordination between departments, and a delay at any point can cause an equal delay in publication or, at worst, will compound into disaster.
Editing as a Gift, Not an Insult
You know what it’s like to come back to a hotel room in the afternoon and find that housekeeping has been there and everything is all fresh and put to rights? That’s how a copyeditor would like you to feel when you see the editing. If you can view extra-duty editing as the mint on the pillow, all the better. What we don’t want is for you to feel insulted that we saw the need for cleaning.
If a manuscript editor has made a smart suggestion, brought clarity to a badly written passage, inspired you with a leading question, or pointed out a flaw in your plot, how are you going to react? I can guess your first thought: you will wish you had thought of it yourself. And almost every writer has been appalled at a boneheaded error that survived all the way to the copyeditor. Your second reaction will be to resent someone else’s having done it (and a mere copyeditor at that), and your third impulse will be to wonder whether it’s fair for you to accept what she has done and present it as your own.
Of course it’s fair. That’s our job. It’s what we hope for. Nothing is more gratifying than for us to receive the manuscript back from a writer with the editing for the most part intact. We don’t feel superior, or think less of you for missing something. You’ve done the most difficult part, researching, organizing, thinking, getting the words onto the page, revising in response to criticism. If we could do that, we’d be writers ourselves. It’s easy for us to read the finished product and pick at the little rough spots.
Two ways you can continue to make things easy for your copyeditor: (1) Respond at least minimally to every question or comment on the manuscript. Even if you decide that your original is correct, a little checkmark beside the query will tell the copyeditor that you read and considered her remarks. (2) Submit lengthy or complex addenda in both hard copy and electronic form. That way your prose will be exactly the way you want it rather than however the copyeditor deciphers your marginal scrawlings.
And here’s a plea straight from the collective heart of copyeditordom: please take a few minutes to read through the cover letter or instructions that your copyeditor encloses with a manuscript or page proofs. And after you read them, follow them. We are continually astonished that grownup professionals, many of whom have probably railed for years at their students for not reading directions, fail to observe the simple instructions for marking up edited copy or proof. This can make a great deal of extra work for your editor. I myself just finished about eight hours (including five on a Sunday) of re-marking proofs for an author who wrote between the lines, failed to flag corrections in the margins, confused his instructions by using the wrong symbols—I could go on and on. I cleaned up the mess myself instead of sending it back because I was getting ready to leave on vacation and the deadline was an important one.
Just because there’s a cleaning crew doesn’t mean you get to throw food on the floor.
“Ils Ont Changé Ma Chanson . . .”
If all goes well, you’ll be happy with the editing of your manuscript. But what if you aren’t? What if you start reading and right away you see that you’ve been terribly misunderstood?
Don’t panic. Everything that has been changed can be changed back, and you should assume that your editor will be willing to do so. Small matters of style are most likely to be negotiable. A researcher and copyeditor at one national magazine told me that after John Updike complained about the house spelling of “kidnaped” and “kidnaping,” the publisher changed the stylebook to Updike’s preferred “kidnapped” and “kidnapping.” Even if you aren’t a John Updike, you still might get what you want if you ask.
Look at an offending edit and figure out why the editor thought the text needed help. There will usually be something wrong that needs fixing: after all, if the editor misunderstood you, other readers may, too. If you don’t like the editor’s solution, figure out a better one and write it in. If you are convinced that the original wording is the way you want it, mark a row of dots under everything you want restored, and write “stet” beside it. And unless you want to go another round on the issue with the editor, pencil in a brief explanation.
Although you will likely find your copyeditor willing to restore almost everything you insist upon, it’s usual for there to be a few matters she will want to discuss further. If there were places where you simply wrote “stet” without addressing the problem in the writing that she was trying to fix, the problem will still be there. She may write back explaining the problem and asking you to find a way to fix it. You may be tempted to dismiss her perception of a problem as imaginary, but that would be a mistake. If one reader stumbles, others may too, and you would do well to address the issue.
In the extreme circumstance that the normal process of negotiating does not induce your copyeditor to undo her editing, you may have to go over her head with a complaint. Please consider this a last resort, after trying first to resolve things with the editor directly.
On the other hand, if you’re happy with the editing, feel free to say so—to the copyeditor herself, to her employers, or in the acknowledgments section of your article or book. Without face-to-face contact, we can’t always guess how our authors really feel. Acknowledgment—or the lack of it—often surprises us. The experience described by a colleague may be typical: as often as not, a writer whose manuscript needed almost no work will praise him effusively, while an author of something he sweated blood cleaning up will overlook him entirely.
Goodness knows, copyeditors aren’t in it for the glory—but when we believe we’ve brought significant improvement to a project, it can make our day to learn that the author thinks so too.
There. Do you feel better about being copyedited? Okay, then, let go of the paper. It’s going to be fine, I promise! Come now, let go . . .
Adapted with permission from The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Carol Fisher Saller is a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A. She is the author of The Subversive Copy Editor and several books for children, including Eddie’s War, forthcoming at namelos.
Q&A with Carol Fisher Saller
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
Foodstuffs don't have much of a future, so I would not be a food voluntarily, but to be a good sport I'll say a fine English ale: I would slide down easily, not get chomped on, and, in a way, have something of an afterlife.
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
That's easy. The pizzeria Il Re di Napoli in the Piazza Ducale in Naples.
I'm impressed that you picked up on that. It's true that I've felt guilty since 1978 when I quit reading War and Peace 14 pages from the end, but by that point Tolstoy had wrapped up the story and was just rabbiting on about his philosophy of history. I think I've been trying to atone in subtle ways ever since.
What can you tell us about the piece we’re publishing?
A chapter for writers wasn’t part of the original outline for The Subversive Copy Editor, but it finally occurred to me that copyediting can’t happen without them. At that point I realized that I would have to civilize writers, as well as copyeditors, in order to bring peace to publishing.
Clifford Garstang Interviews Josh Weil
Josh Weil was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia, to which he returned to write the novellas in his first book, The New Valley (Grove, 2009).
A New York Times Editors Choice, The New Valley has won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters; the New Writers Award from the Great Lakes Colleges Associaton; and was selected for a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. Weil’s short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Granta, American Short Fiction, Narrative, and Glimmer Train, among other journals; he has written non-fiction for The New York Times, Granta Online, and Poets & Writers. Since earning his MFA from Columbia University, he has received a Fulbright grant, a Writer’s Center Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Dana Award in Portfolio, and fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.
Cliff Garstang: Thanks for agreeing to talk to Prime Number, Josh. Your terrific collection of novellas, The New Valley, has been out almost a year now. I wonder if you could say something about what the year has been like. Has it matched your expectations?
Josh Weil: I’ve been really lucky: the year has gone better than I could have imagined, let alone expected. That’s not to say that the book is some huge success—but it’s done well enough to have surprised me and to have made me sit still some moments and just be grateful, you know? There are so many amazing books—certainly every bit as good as mine—that don’t get picked up in the same way. And I don’t know what makes one get grabbed by the moment and one get left behind by it, I really don’t. I always knew that that—the getting left behind—was a possibility, so my expectations were really pretty low at first. Before the book came out I told myself that all I wanted was that it didn’t get panned by critics, that it wasn’t a total flop, that I wouldn’t be revealed as a fraud. So when it started to get good reviews and get chosen for awards it felt a little mad, a little wondrous—scratch that: a lot wondrous. Like I said, I’ve been lucky.
CG: It seems that people are talking more these days about the novella form. I think most people have only a vague idea of what a novella is, and probably only in terms of length. What’s your definition of a novella? Is the form coming back?
JW: I hate to define novellas by length, but I suppose that, at base, is the easiest way to differentiate the form from others. Though even that’s slippery. I just wrote a long story that’s 15,000 words. That feels on the edge of a novella to me, but it still feels like a short story. But I have a 20,000 word piece that I wrote last year that feels like a novella. 5,000 words isn’t a huge difference. So, it’s more about what each piece is trying to accomplish, what it needs to do in order to work, and the way that that shifts the experience of reading (and writing) it. So I like to define a novella by what it does that’s unique, by the unique way in which it can touch a reader and the way that it opens up a story that’s different from how a short story or a novel works. When I talk about that, the best I can do is this: If a short story typically looks at a small, precise part of the world with intense focus and a novel looks at a large swath of the world with a certain generosity of scope, then a novella, I think, looks at a small, precise part of the world with the focus of a short story, but it treats what’s within that focused lens with a novel’s generosity and care. So there’s room for back-story. There’s room to sit with a character for a while, to get to know him or her—and the landscape of the life—in a way that’s not typically possible in a short story. And yet there’s the drive, the intensity of the short story in a way that a novel just isn’t built for. Which is part of why I love the novella form so much: For me, it combines some of the things I love most about novels and short stories. You kind of get the best of both worlds. Except, of course, it can’t do what either of those other forms do, not fully—because it’s doing its own thing—so I’m certainly not placing it above either of those forms. It’s just different, and deserves to be taken as seriously as either of the other forms.
I hope that’s happening. I think it might be, though not necessarily in the way I’d like. I think the form of the novel is being expanded to include the novella (there are so many short, short novels these days), and I don’t think that helps things. It seems to me that a 600 page epic novel and a 120 page slim novel (they’re out there!) are such different beasts. To call them the same thing seems to blur both, I think. I wish the publishing world would just come to peace with publishing a 120 page novella and calling it that and let the form take its rightful place.
CG: The voices of the three novellas in the book are all quite different from each other, and one of them, “Sarverville Remains,” told from the point of view of a mildly retarded man, is different from just about everything I’ve read. Was that one particularly difficult? How did you go about getting it just right?
JW: Well, thanks, Cliff; that’s hugely gratifying to think that Sarverville stands out that way. It’s the closest to my heart of probably anything that I’ve written, so that means a lot to me. Maybe because I was so close to it, emotionally, it wasn’t particularly difficult. In fact, it came perhaps more quickly than the other two—certainly, it flowed out faster than “Stillman Wing,” which is written in an authorial voice that’s closer to what I think of as my natural voice. But that’s part of how “Sarverville” worked: once I had the voice, the voice did the work. Geoffrey (the main character, and narrator) just spoke. I know that sounds flakey, but it’s true. He talked; I wrote. That said, the structure of the piece is probably the most complex of anything I’ve written. So when I wasn’t writing, wasn’t putting down what Geoffrey said, I was banging my head against the wall trying to map out how the hell the thing was working. That was hard. There were days when it made my head hurt. A lot. But that was the conscious puzzle-solving aspect. The subconscious writing, once it started (and I failed at it a year before I got it right), just rolled.
CG: I’m curious about your path to publication. I know you got your MFA at Columbia, but how did this book come about? What was your publishing experience before you finished the book, and what did agents and editors say when they saw the novellas?
JW: It was a slog; it was really draining and really tough and often depressing and, if it weren’t so invigorating when a few things came through, I don’t know that I would have kept at it. Not the novellas, but the path to publication in general. I wrote some failed novels first; I ought to just put that out there. They were long and I put my heart into them and worked like hell at them and I just wasn’t ready. So I consider that my training ground, maybe even a kind of proving ground. It wasn’t short stories; I didn’t write short stories, not seriously, until just before the MFA, and then not successfully until afterwards. But, as is common, they were my first way into publication. And I went a pretty typical route: publishing first in smaller journals, then gradually in better ones, until finally Granta took a story of mine and that really did feel like a shift, like I had crossed some kind of fault line. The thing is, I crossed it when I was ready to cross it. I really do believe that if you do the work, and work at it, and keep improving, when you’re ready the world will be ready, too. It’s just a matter of pushing yourself to that point, and pushing through the hard, hard times that build up to it.
Part of those hard times, for me, was my first experience with an agent. I signed with a great agent at a big agency and she took on a novel that I thought was good and that she loved and it almost sold—came so close—but never did. That was tough. Seeing it slip away from me. And then seeing her slip away from me, because after the novel what I had was the novellas. And she didn’t want anything to do with them. She read one, came back to me with the dreaded “Can’t you make this into a novel?” and started another and hated it and wouldn’t even read the third. Which probably would have been the reaction of most agents: novellas? You’ve got to be kidding me. But, luckily, I found an agent—PJ Mark, who I’m with now—who was brave and wise and wonderful in all ways. He took a look at the novellas, read them over the weekend, got back to me and said, This is what we’re going out with. I thought he was nuts. Everyone thought he was. I’m sure people in his office probably thought so too. A no-name author with a collection of quiet novellas about rural people? Good Lord. I felt like I could hear the whole publishing world chuckling. But then—after we went out with it to five editors—it got picked up in about a week. By a wonderful house and a legendary editor, both of which I love. I sat there in the editor’s office the day she said she wanted to buy it and felt like there were two of me in the room: the one sitting in the chair, all professionalism and calm, and the one that had stepped out of my body and was doing fist-pumps and full-throat-hollers all around the room.
CG: The book, which was one of my favorites of last year, is set in western Virginia. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in that part of the state. Are you done writing about it now or does it still inspire you? And what other places appeal to you as settings for your work?
JW: Oh, I’m not sure I’ll ever be done writing about that part of the world. It’s in my blood, at this point. My mind just goes there at times, and the stories in me get set there, if that makes sense. But I am soon going to start a novel set down there and it will bring together a lot of what I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, so it feels to me like it might allow me to put that part of me to rest—at least for a while. Which is good, because there are so many other stories I want to dive into, in so many other settings. Setting is hugely important to me; I can’t separate it from story. So my notebooks are always full of ideas jotted down while I’ve been in different places all over the world. The novel that I’m currently working on is set in northern Russia. The story I just finished is set in central Pennsylvania. The book I was researching while I was on a Fulbright is all set along the Upper Nile—from Egypt to Uganda. So it’s not really one place, it’s place itself that is such a driving force in my work.
CG: I’m curious about the illustrations in the book. You did them, right? They’re terrific. Can you tell us about them?
JW: Thanks again, Cliff. I’m really glad that they made it into the book; it made the book feel even more personal to me, somehow. They were originally going to be sections from old tractor manuals; I had wanted to include images in something ever since I read WG Sebald and this novella felt like it needed them, in part because the way that time works in the piece made the idea of chapter breaks, or even hard breaks of any sort, seem wrong for it. The way that an image works both forwards and backwards in a text, that it’s open-ended in its relationship to the story and, as such, changeable and fluid—that felt right to me. For various reasons I ended up doing drawings myself instead of using images from old catalogues, and I’m so glad I did. They combine human parts and tractor parts in a way that brought together some important themes in the novel; I hope they do so in a complex way.
CG: I’m always interested in influences on writers. Who are some of your literary heroes? Whose work would you say has influenced yours?
JW: I was deeply, deeply influenced by many writers—and still am, of course. My first real influences were storytellers more than literary writers: Leon Uris, Frederick Forsyth, that kind of thing. But then I found great storytellers who were also great writers—Steinbeck, particularly; Steinbeck probably shaped me at the outset, when I was first starting to think about writing, more than any other writer. From there, I found the writers I love and who still influence me really strongly now: Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and contemporary writers, too, like Annie Proulx, Jim Shepard, Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy…The list could go on and on.
CG: Is there another book scheduled to come out yet? And what are you working on now? More novellas?
JW: Nope, no book scheduled to come out. Though I am working on something. Two things, actually. A collection of stories and novellas (it’s going to be long) and a novel (the one set in northern Russia). Both of which seem like real departures for me, which is both exhilarating and terrifying.
CG: Do you have any tips for writers who are looking to break into publishing?
JW: Write what you have to write, what you have in you that needs getting out. That’s where your best work will be and so, even if it seems impractical, even if there are other things that feel more logical, that will be the thing that puts you on the map. I really believe that. I wrote each of the novellas in The New Valley with a kind of hopeless resignation: I didn’t think they’d be published; I didn’t know how they might; but I had to write them. I wrote them as breaks, almost, from the other more practical stuff (short stories, a novel) that I was writing. And, in the end, it was the novellas that launched my career. They were the most honest, deepest, heart-felt work. And I believe that work will always out.
Clifford Garstang is the editor of Prime Number Magazine.
Elizabeth McCullough Interviews Gina Welch
A few years ago Gina Welch, a Jewish atheist from Berkeley, California with an MFA from the University of Virginia, decided she wanted to better understand the cultural and political divisions between Evangelical Americans and people like herself—from the inside. So she went undercover, posing as a believer in Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. The result is the engaging and uniquely insightful In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church.
In the book’s pages Gina undertakes many journeys, from California to Virginia, from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, from Lynchburg to the mission fields of Alaska, from the outer fringes of the congregation into the hearts of her friends and mentors there. As with any road story, the tension builds as Gina approaches her final destination: the completion of the book and the revelation of her cover story to the people she had deceived.
Under all these literal and metaphorical journeys lies another one, however, that I found just as intriguing: Gina’s journey as a writer, both personally and professionally. Here is our conversation on that subject:
Elizabeth McCullough: Perhaps every writer is a bit undercover—hanging back a little, observing, making mental notes—but not everyone has the emotional stamina or tolerance for risk-taking required for going undercover in a close-knit community. Did you know before you started this project that you had what it would take? If you could go back in time and talk to the younger Gina who’s just about to embark on this journey, what would you tell her?
Gina Welch: Oh man, I really like that idea—that all writers, in some sense, are undercover. Most writers I know, fiction and non-, poets too, have complicated feelings about using "material," about not composing from pure, white-light imagination. We all steal from the world we live in.
Of course my project had a very top-heavy ratio of theft to invention, and the ethical legacy of that issue wasn't something I was prepared for in the least when I began working on the book.
I don't think there's any such thing as being prepared for the universe of trouble you invite in setting out to write a book, but I was particularly naive. I had hubris, I had bulldog determination, I had curiosity. Those were the legs I thought would carry me through.
My attitude about the project was a little clinical. I didn't realize how awful it would be to lie to people in real life. I didn't understand how hard it would be to get a handle on something I had no foundation for culturally, theologically, politically. I didn't foresee how difficult it would be to button my lip when I overheard bigotry. I didn't predict how attached I'd become to my friends, to my pastors, to church. I wasn't prepared for the solitary haul of finishing the book, for the daily challenge in deciding to work.
I didn't understand the extent to which a book becomes your life. It's part best friend, part higher power, part flesh-eating bacteria.
And to have the book out in the world—well, that vulnerability brought a whole new set of issues I wasn't prepared for.
My experience of maturing as a writer has been the incremental realization that I'm really not prepared for anything, that each new frontier presents challenges for which I'll have to invent solutions.
The main thing I'd want to tell a younger me is to ask for advice from people older, wiser, more experienced. I never did that, and I rarely do now, but I believe it would've saved me from a lot of mistakes I made.
EM: In the book you acknowledge your editor at Metropolitan, Sara Bershtel, for setting “bars that seemed beyond reach” and then helping you reach them – what did you learn about writing and about yourself as a writer from this project?
GW: Both of my editors—Sara Bershtel and Riva Hocherman—are like hall-of-fame great editors for ferreting out the book's problems and making me figure out how to solve them myself. They often offered me broad, vexing comments like, "The pages turn, but the structure doesn't work," or, "There's a problem with the way time passes." And I would be like, Well isn't that the very nature of time? I wanted a prescription, or a pass. Neither of them were letting me get away with the impatience I felt about getting the book to print. I trusted them more than I trusted myself, so I had to figure out how to kind of inhabit what was bothering them and then how to make it go away.
I learned that structure does not come naturally to me. I learned that there's an art to deploying your draft-readers, and I blew some of my most important readers too early because I was desperate for validation and for someone to tell me to keep going. I learned that endings—of chapters, of the book itself—have to kind of alight themselves on the work. I can't manufacture that final flavor that feels like an end. It arrives on its own, spit out of whatever invisible circuitry I've built up in thinking about the matter of what's come before it.
There's a really silly, elaborate metaphor I dreamed up when I felt particularly out of control of this sprawling mess of a document that was supposed to end up dressed in a book jacket. Writing a book was like trying to choreograph a synchronized swimming routine from the bottom of the pool. You can't hear the music, you have to watch all these different bodies at once, and you're not seeing the vital picture—what the swimmers look like up at the surface. The only way to simulate the reader's experience is to forget your sentences. So that's an important thing I learned: make yourself put it away for a while before trying to revise it.
EM: How did you first envision In the Land of Believers, and what metamorphoses did it go through on the way to publication?
GW: One of my early models for the book was Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, a gorgeously intimate, honest, respectful portrait of a Latino family in the Bronx. It took LeBlanc about ten years to write, and though it's clear from the way she zips you in with the characters that she must have grown very close to the people she wrote about, her fingerprints aren't all over their stories. The book isn't about her. I didn't want mine to be about me either.
I hadn't really accounted for how much the experience would change me. When I began the book I had this flinty certainty that I was fully formed, and that even though my sort of internal library of understanding would grow new shelves, I would emerge unaltered. I didn't see how deeply new understanding would change my character. It has to, right? Once you learn you've been wrong about so many things, or at least limited in your perception, it alters the very way you live.
The depth of that personal change made it a critical part of the book's architecture. Which meant I had to write a lot about myself--about my background, my perceptions, the identity crisis and moral struggle I wound up volunteering for. At first that was very uncomfortable. I worried about the solipsism in presenting my experience among evangelicals as a tool I used to produce a coming-of-age experience. But in the end I think my personal narrative serves as critical evidence supporting the book's suggestion that middle ground between people like me and evangelical Christians is possible.
EM: What audiences has In the Land of Believers found? Who seems to “get” it? What has most surprised you about the book’s reception?
GW: Judging from the mail I've been getting, the audience is kind of all over the map. I've heard from young people who respond to the book's call for cross-cultural understanding. I've heard from skeptics who express a sense of ease in retiring caricatures of conservative evangelical Christians. I hear from a lot of people who grew up in religious households and respond to a book that speaks to their past and their current reality. The book has getting some good traction among Evangelicals, which has been a happy surprise for me. Rick Warren tweeted a Q&A I did with Benyamin Cohen on The Huffington Post, and after that happened I started hearing from a number of evangelical pastors. Some of them have relieved my anxieties by telling me they think I got it. Some of them email to try to convince me to become a Christian. Some of them accept me as I am. Some of them tell me my book has become a kind of handbook to making nonbelievers feel less alienated at church, which feels pretty weird. But I recently read this thing Clint Eastwood said about his movies, that they're like children: you raise them up as best as you can, and then you let them go. That's how I've been trying to position myself toward the book's reception--enjoying the little surprises reader-reaction yields.
EM: What did you feel was missing from the cultural conversation before you wrote In the Land of Believers? What do you hope to accomplish with this book? With your writing career?
GW: Most books on evangelicals fall into one of two categories: roadtrip-reporting—where the writer visits lots of different churches and evangelical festivals and tries to evoke a kind of cultural panorama; and leadership reporting, where the writer fans out history or a sociological exploration from the perspective of the prominent figures in the world of evangelical Christians.
You could say that both of these models drink in more than my book does, that they're more comprehensive, but I don't think they really create space to look at the long-wave, diurnal realities of life for evangelical Christians, for that intimate, time-spanning understanding, and so there's something a little reductive, I think, about the conversation they inspire. What was missing for me was a portrait that represented the messy, complicated nature of real life.
As far as what I hope to accomplish with my writing career, I guess I just hope I find ways to keep at it. I'm working on another book now, and I'm not particularly interested in trying to see past its horizon.
Elizabeth McCullough lives with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has been published at Blogcritics.com, C-Ville Weekly, Home Education Magazine, and Internet Review of Books. Her current projects include CvilleWords.com, a local blog with a literary focus, and BookBalloon.com, a discussion forum for people who love books. She is a founding member of WriterHouse in Charlottesville.
Love in Mid-Air by Kim Wright
(Grand Central Publishing, 2010)
Reviewed by Mary Akers
In Love in Mid-Air, Kim Wright’s delightfully sexy debut novel, the main character Elyse Bearden struggles to stay emotionally engaged in a ho-hum marriage to a dispassionate man. He isn’t unkind, her husband, and her life isn’t bad, but it is unfulfilling—especially in the sex and communication department. Is this, she wonders, what all marriages are like? On a routine business trip, Elyse unexpectedly gets the chance to test her convictions. But should lack of excitement be enough of a reason to risk everything familiar for a handsome stranger on a plane?
Elyse confronts such questions from her own conscience and from her girlfriends who feel the threat to their marriages implicit in Elyse’s dissatisfaction and deception in hers. Readers can rest assured that Love in Mid-Air is not a moral tale, though—even if it does wrestle with some weighty issues—but is more akin to a fun romp in the world of What If. Reading this book is like being on the receiving end of a juicy phone call from a best friend. Elyse is an entertaining, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator. “It’s been so long since I’ve felt desire,” she tells us, “that at first I mistake it for the flu.”
Kim Wright is an excellent storyteller. She knows just when to throw in a humorous aside to endear you to her characters, when to casually mention a sexy anecdote to keep your blood pumping, and when to wow you with a deep human insight that is so casually inserted you think you’ve thought it up yourself. In short, Wright writes in a way that is all about the reader—the reader’s experience, that is—and it’s clearly our enjoyment that matters most to her.
On occasion, I was left with a feeling that the author might be trying just a bit too hard—particularly at the end of a chapter, say—to make a point, or to refer us back to an image with a double meaning or ironic twist. Coming across a few of these can be deeply satisfying, but too many, placed too predictably, and they feel like an authorial wink, wink, nudge, nudge in an otherwise subtle and engaging read.
However, faulting an author for trying too hard seems like a niggling complaint, and surely it is, for there was little else to find fault with in this refreshingly funny, engaging, and satisfying read.
Mary Akers is a graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program in Creative Writing and co-founder of the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology, a study abroad program originally located in Roseau, Dominica. She has also been a Bread Loaf waiter and returning work-study scholar. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, Mississippi Review online, Brevity, and other journals. She has published two books, one a collection of short stories titled Women Up On Blocks that won the 2010 IPPY gold medal for short fiction, and the other a co-authored book of non-fiction that has been published in the US, Australia, UK, Canada, Germany, and Poland, with French publication pending. Although raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—which she will always call home—she currently lives in western New York.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
(Times Books, 2010)
Reviewed by Elizabeth McCullough
Bill McKibben comes out swinging in his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, and he doesn’t let up for the next hundred pages. He claims his point is a simple one—“Global warming is no longer a …threat.... It’s our reality”—and should you doubt him, here’s a tsunami of data to persuade you. The last hundred and fifty years or so have been a petrochemical paradise of technological magic, global travel, and global trade, but the party is drawing to a close. McKibben wants us to understand that we no longer live on the planet whose stable climate made this great civilization possible. We live on Eaarth, where extreme weather events, mass extinctions, rising sea levels, and rising temperatures are the new normal.
The heap of examples, anecdotes, reports, and data in the first half of the book make the case that it’s already too late to make the easy changes; time, money, and resources are running out too fast for us to be able to rewind the film. Looking back over the missed opportunities from the Carter era to the present, McKibben writes with barely restrained outrage. His fire-breathing style won’t appeal to everyone, but I don’t think he’s trying to make friends with this book.
The last half of the book feels like a reward for making it through the first half without collapsing in despair. Because any other choice is unthinkable, McKibben advocates learning to live on the new Eaarth “lightly, carefully, gracefully.” He begins by exploding our modern mythology of growth as an end in itself, and talks about people in the US and in other countries who have already begun the work of building good lives and good communities around principles of restraint, self-sufficiency, and sustainability. He challenges his readers to grow up and face the new facts of life the way our grandparents faced two world wars and a great depression. I would have liked even more stories about these pioneers of a new way of living—a whole book full wouldn’t be too many.
If you like your climate news wrapped up in assurances that it’s all going to work out, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re ready to hitch up your pants and face the future, then—welcome to Eaarth.
Elizabeth McCullough lives with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has been published at Blogcritics.com, C-Ville Weekly, Home Education Magazine, and Internet Review of Books. Her current projects include CvilleWords.com, a local blog with a literary focus, and BookBalloon.com, a discussion forum for people who love books. She is a founding member of WriterHouse in Charlottesville.