A decade ago very few readers were familiar with the name Annie Proulx, though she had already been scrapping out a living as a writer for some time. Six books written on assignment bore her name in the early 1980s, most of them how-to books on everything from making cider to making fences to growing successful salad gardens.
Over the course of her first decade as a professional writer Proulx managed to squeeze out a couple of short stories per year. By 1988 there were enough of them to form a collection, which then appeared as Heart Songs and Other Stories (Scribners, 1988). A period of more active fiction writing followed until the publication four years later of her first novel Postcards (Scribners 1992), yet Proulx was still far from a household name.
All of that changed in 1993 when she became the first woman to win the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction in the award’s twelve-year history. She also published her second novel The Shipping News in 1993, and suddenly her name was everywhere. Within one year of winning the Pen/Faulkner Award, Proulx completed a sort of literary grand slam by also winning the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the National Book Award in Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, all for The Shipping News—a rare if not unprecedented accomplishment.
Two works of fiction have since followed, the novel Accordian Crimes (Scribner, 1996) and Close Range (Scribner, 1999). In this latest volume, Proulx has returned to the short story with a collection of eleven "Wyoming stories." Whether as the literal setting of the tales or as a metaphorical shadow looming over her characters’ lives, Wyoming in all its hard and terrible glory lies at the center of this volume. As the narrator of one story admits: "I wasn’t going to leave Wyoming. You don’t leave until you have to."
Haunted by personal demons that spring from the harsh Wyoming life, some of her characters do have to leave, but Wyoming never leaves them. This theme is prominent in two of the centerpiece stories of the collection, "The Half-Skinned Steer" (selected by John Updike for Best American Short Stories of the Century) and "The Mud Below" (winner of a 1998 O. Henry Prize). In the former story, eighty-three-year-old Mero Corn returns to Wyoming from his comfortable New England existence for the first time in sixty years to gloat at his brother Rollo’s funeral. "He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole. That event could jerk him back." But the trip opens up the past in ways for which Mero is not fully prepared:
Similarly haunted by his difficult Wyoming upbringing is Diamond Felts, the bullriding half-pint protagonist of "The Mud Below." A brilliant portrayal of the rodeo culture of the American Southwest (so foreign to the experience of most Americans) the story is one among several in the collection that are reminiscent of Hemingway’s finest early stories. While Proulx’s magnificent prose owes little to Hemingway—or, it would appear, to anyone else—the world view evoked in these stories (one of defiant resignation to the inevitable misery of existence) bears a close resemblance to that of In Our Time.
Driven by desires they can never hope to fulfill, her characters—hard-bitten ranchers and cowboys, burnt-out saloon waitresses, luckless homesteaders—are beaten and emasculated by a hard life that owes them nothing, but in their plodding day-to-day survival of one hardship after another they remain for the most part undefeated. Whether this condition is tragic or a pathetic failing of insight is left to the reader to decide. Its most forceful expression lies in Proulx’s descriptions of the bare and unforgiving Wyoming landscape, which is always as metaphorical as it is literal:
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolated crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, grafitti’d celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that. [from "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water," Close Range, p. 97]
And yet any reader familiar with Proulx’s work knows that, no matter what her subject or style, she is no Hemingway knock-off. Her prose is as quirky and distinctive as her characters (whose names include improbable variations like Tin Head, Pake Bitts, Tee Dove and Ottaline Touhey) and like them it is absolutely original and authentic. "The light was falling out of the day when he reached the pass" reads one descriptive sentence from "The Half-Skinned Steer"—or consider another from the same story: "There were cattle in the field beside the road, their plumed breaths catching the moony glow like comic strip dialogue balloons." In Annie Proulx’s descriptions there is no room for settling on the easy turn of phrase, no hint of gravitation toward bromides. Even when she speaks through characters for whom cliché is the currency of speech, their utterances approximate the sound of homespun banality without being banal themselves: "The house trailer I rented was old. It was more of a camper you’d tow behind a car, so small you couldn’t cuss the cat without getting fur in your mouth."
The humor in Proulx’s stories is sometimes light, especially when it seeks to capture the rural charm of her characters. More often than not, however, it is a dark humor akin to the grim understatement and irony found in Icelandic sagas. The kinship of Proulx’s stories with this relatively obscure but rich literary tradition seems especially clear in the very brief story "The Blood Bay," in which a cowboy found frozen to death has his feet sawed off by another who wants the boots that are frozen to them, or in "The Half-Skinned Steer," whose title says it all—skinned livestock left alive are conventional figures in medieval Icelandic literature, as in Grettir’s Saga.
Few writers these days are capable of harvesting from this soil more effectively than Annie Proulx. Indeed, a number of the characters (mostly anti-heroes) and stories in Close Range, with their penchant for the bizarre and grotesque, seem to have been transplanted in time and place from the fertile ground of that marvelous and brutal Icelandic tradition and put to good use by Proulx in her own mixture of sentimental and magic realism. The rugged individualism of the characters and the inhospitability of the environment are only two of several features Medieval Iceland and Proulx’s Wyoming have in common. For a collection of stories filled with misery and pain, the reader will certainly find herself laughing a lot, just as she will find herself admiring the artistry of Proulx’s craft—that is, when she isn’t too caught up in the stories to give craft any thought.
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.
Excerpts from presentations on 9/26/91
Ann Beattie has received critical acclaim for her depictions of the generation of Americans who grew up in the 60s. She has published six collections of short stories, including "Park City" (1998), "What Was Mine" (1991), and "The Burning House" (1982), and six novels, including "My Life, Starring Dara Falcon" (1997), "Another You" (1995), "Picturing Will" (1990), and "Chilly Scenes of Winter" (1976). She has received numerous awards for her work, including an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
"Park City," Beattie's most recent story collection, chronicles the Woodstock generation from youth to middle age: experimenting with drugs, traveling aimlessly, settling down, breaking up, finding resolution.
Anne Beattie visited the New York State Writers Institute on September 26, 1991. The following are excerpts from her presentations at that time.
On visual images. . .
"Probably the genesis of [all] writing for me, whether or not it emerges that way, is primarily the visual. In other words, people may say, 'You write very convincing dialogue,' and then I say, 'I write terrible dialogue.'" But whatever is said on that level [in dialogue], it's almost inter- changeable a lot of the time-- as filler. The way other people might use narrative, I might use dialogue. It doesn't ever really carry the plot forward in any way. But, for me at least, the visual elements do carry the plot forward. They may not necessarily be as dazzling as I hope for the reader, but for me that is what propels the story, what makes it happen."
On research. . .
"I rely more on intuition than research, but I have a great skill in knowing people who know things. And I have no shame at all about calling, you know, my friend the doctor and asking, 'If someone had osteoporosis, what might they first feel?' And then I hang up and then I holler out 'How do you spell foregone!' And then my husband screams the spelling of the word. I actually don't look things up very much...
[But] I like writers who do [research]. I like being persuaded. I take it that Mailer has done a superb job of convincing people that the CIA is the way he says the CIA is. And, you know, he certainly did real research about that, reading papers and so on and so forth. I guess frankly that all of my stuff seems so rooted in a culture that I take for granted, that researching specific jobs or something like that would not seem very much to the point. I've never really created characters that I didn't understand. So, if I've put them there, I've already intuited something about them, and then if I don't know the specifics, I ask.
[On the other hand] I do have a very good friend in Oakville, Connecticut, who is a wedding photographer [and when I created the wedding photographer protagonist of Picturing Will] the last thing I ever wanted to do was consult with her to find out the truth when I was writing that book. It would have inhibited me. So I didn't say anything at all and the first thing she knew of it was when the book came out. However, [in the past] I'd even driven her occasionally to photograph a wedding, but [the details of the book] were not necessarily factual. It just provided me with enough of a factual basis to invent. It just seems more fun than research. Also, I was traumatized by graduate school--oh God!--no more research!
On writing from experience. . .
It does vary from story to story [whether I include elements of experience]. Sometimes things crop up that I don't think I've remembered until the moment that I remember them. I don't work very much at all in translating so-called experiences. If there are experiences there at all, they tend to be stolen, overheard conversations, or the stories of friends of friends-- not even friends. There are all kinds of in-jokes and cameos [of people I know] that seem to me amusing, but I would not be able to write anything novel, or a story, if there did not seem some kind of an inevitability about what was happening, an inevitability... that I would be hard-pressed to articulate as I was writing without sounding like a fool and would have no reason to want to articulate. In other words, it seems that at some point, something has to take over that is more than I know about the world. Or more perplexing than I would suspect about a situation in order to have it be lively enough, so that I'm more interested in following that, than going and talking to somebody who's very interesting and who I don't really have a fix on.
But I do think it's magic. It's like dropping those little flower pellets in a glass of water and watching them open up. I saw a little kid doing that the other day and I thought, "Good metaphor for what goes on in a story or in a novel." I do it to see what happens.Jessica Firger is an Intern at the New York State Writers Institute.
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A Review of His Life and Writings
In our era of literary specialization there are few authors whose writings approach the diversity of subject and form, nor the sustained level of output, that characterize Donald Hall's body of works.
In a publishing career that has spanned four and a half decades, Hall has published fourteen volumes of poetry and twenty-two books of prose (both fiction and non-fiction). As a prose writer he has produced works ranging form literary criticism to cultural criticism, from biography to memoir, from writings on sport to examinations of art. He has also written two plays and eleven children's books. And none of these figures take into account the twenty or so anthologies of verse and essays he has edited.
In one of his best known writerly incarnations (and to some perhaps the most curious), Hall is the consummate sports lover and baseball aficionado who lyrically meditates on the wonder and cultural power of our national pastime. "Half my friends," Hall writes, "think I am insane to waste my time writing about sports and to loiter in the company of professional athletes. The other half would murder to take my place." Two notable works resulting from Hall's lifelong attraction to sports (and baseball in particular) are Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball) (1985) and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (1976).
Fathers opens with an essay that recounts Hall's experience as a participant in spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1973. This captivating account serves as a springboard for meditations throughout the rest of the book on the force of sports (and the metaphors they provide) in American culture; special attention is also given in the book to the (oft forgotten) gems of baseball literature. As a Los Angeles Times book review put it: "Baseball is one metaphor for the changing of the seasons, and Hall--as poet and seer here--raises Sport to an Art." Dock Ellis is largely a close-hand biographical treatment of the controversial Pirates pitcher, whose antics on and off the field brought him no small share of notoriety. Part homage to Ellis, part sober look at the troubling aspects of his life and times, the book transcends mere biography in its offering of valuable cultural insights.
It is no surprise that Hall's love for baseball carries over into other writings, as in his children's story When Willard Met Babe Ruth, as well as in many of his poems like "The Thirteenth Inning" from The Old Life (1996) and "Baseball" and Extra Innings" from The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993).
However many writing hats he wears, it is as a poet, first and foremost, that Hall is known and respected. He began writing poetry at the age of twelve, and by the age of fourteen he was working on his poems daily. In a short memoir titled "Two Hundred Years" Hall has written of his first attempts in those early years to publish his work:
(From "Two Hundred Years, CLC Autobiography Series Vol. 7)
After Harvard Hall attended Oxford for two years, where his poems continued to develop and attract attention. He became only the third American to win the prestigious Newdigate prize at Oxford--for "Exile," which would become the centerpiece of his first collection of poems Exiles and Marriages, the Lamont Poetry Selection of 1955.
Hall returned to America and accepted a fellowship for a year to attend the creative writing program at Stanford, where his studies with Yvor Winters would come to exert a major influence on the direction of his poetry.
(From "Two Hundred Years, CLC Autobiography Series Vol. 7)
After his Stanford year, Hall returned to Harvard for three years as a Junior Fellow. It was during this period that a fellow Harvard alumnus asked him to be the poetry editor of a fledgling literary journal based in Paris. The alumnus, then studying at Cambridge University, was an ambitious and well-connected young man by the name of George Plimpton, and the journal--prospectively called The Paris News Post--became The Paris Review.
where my mother grew up, a girl in the country,
my grandfather and grandmother
finished the autumn work, taking the last vegetables in
from the cold fields, canning, storing roots and apples
in the cellar under the kitchen. Then my grandfather
raked leaves against the house
as the final chore of autumn.
One November I drove up from college to see them.
We pulled big rakes, as we did when we hayed in summer,
pulling the leaves against the granite foundations
around the house, on every side of the house,
and then, to keep them in place, we cut spruce boughs
and laid them across the leaves,
green on red, until the house
was tucked up, ready for snow
that would freeze the leaves in tight, like a stiff skirt.
Then we puffed through the shed door,
taking off boots and overcoats, slapping our hands,
and sat in the kitchen, rocking, and drank
black coffee my grandmother made,
three of us sitting together, silent, in gray November.
(from Kicking the Leaves, 1978)
The One Day consists of 112 ten-line stanzas, largely in blank verse. Divided into three sections--"Shrubs Burnt Away," "Four Classic Texts," and "To Build a House"--the poem invokes multiple voices. Two of these are the principal speakers--a suicidal woman sculptor and a burnt-out alcoholic man, both struggling to make sense of their lives on the threshold of old age. In the beginning and ending sections of the poem, their narratives are juxtaposed in alternating stanzas, creating a compelling counterpoint. Effective use of anaphora, connective imagery and a other rhetorical and poetic techniques add to the power of these narratives, while unifying their opposition. Formally, the middle section of the poem stands apart; it consists of four smaller parts--"Prophecy," "Pastoral," "History," and Eclogue"--that abandon the alternating narratives. Yet in more than the obvious way these sections form the heart of the poem in their forceful, almost overpowering indictment of everything from middle-aged complacency to the destructive bent of human civilization to the tragic shallowness of America culture.
I praise old lilacs rising in woods behind cellarholes;
I praise toads. I predict the telephone call
that reports the friend from childhood cold on a staircase.
I praise children, grandchildren, and just-baked bread.
I praise fried Spam and onions on slices of Wonder Bread;
I praise your skin. I predict the next twenty years,
days of mourning, long walks growing slow and painful.
I reject twenty years of mid-life; I reject rejections.
The one day stands unmoving in sun and shadow.
(from "To Build a House," The One Day)
("The Late Spring of Donald Hall," Los Angeles Times Book Review, Nov. 5, 1989)
In a recent interview in the San Diego Reader with Judith Moore, Hall made an interesting observation on the development of his poetry after his move back to Eagle Pond Farm:
(from "Donald Hall: in conversation with Judith Moore")
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.
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Donald Hall & Syndey Lea
Joan Murray’s poetry is in a word, contemplative. The voices of her poetry create a sense of intimacy that is rare in today’s modern verse. Her work is as the Harvard Book Review notes, "accessible to the scholar of poetry and the casual reader new to the genre." Indeed, there is the sense that her poetry is not guarded, and this lack of pretense is what most certainly creates the intimate and contemplative voices in her poems. These are marks of style in content as well as form. The voices that emanate from her poetry echo the spoken word.
Murray is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry. Her first book, The Same Water (Wesleyan 1990), was the winner of the Wesleyan New Poets Series. Her two most recent books, Looking for the Parade (Norton 1999) and Queen of the Mist (Beacon 1999), were winners of the National Poetry Series chosen by Robert Bly and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award chosen by Joyce Carol Oates, respectively. Her poetry has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Ms., The Nation, The New York Times, The Hudson Review, The Paris Review, and on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Murray has been the recipient of prestigious literary awards such as the Pushcart Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Award.
Looking for the Parade has been recognized and praised for its fearless introspection and contemplation. In a review from Publisher’s Weekly, it was noted how the lyrical quality found in her poetry shows her drive as a poet to "search for some connectedness in a world hard to decipher."
Collectively, the poems in this volume are a lyrical meditation on humanity, on death, and on life. These poems pay homage to the marvels of life; both large and small, the terror as well as wonder-filled. Her poetry portrays the actions and events of humans, which reflect back on to the general state of humanity in the twentieth century. The poems’ subjects include a woman in South Africa who is the purveyor of water during a drought, two older women watching young men play softball, a disabled man on a fishing trip, and a young woman with breast cancer. These are just a few of the brave spirits of humanity which Murray so eloquently illuminates for her readers.
In one of the poems, Twentieth Century Creativity, we see the struggle of three different prisoners, all attempting to produce creativity and life in three different times and settings of death and inhumanity. This poem keenly reminds the readers of the essence of the human spirit, in all of its surprising, sad, happy and beautiful manifestations. The paradoxes and tensions in Looking for the Parade tell the reader of the state of humanity. This particularly comes out in the last poem of the collection, which holds the same title as the book. In this poem, we see a culmination of all of her book’s themes, the paradoxes of life, embodied in a whole town waiting for a parade that never comes.
Queen of the Mist tells the true and fascinating story of the struggle of one bold woman. In 1901, at age 63, Annie Taylor performed a life-defying stunt which shocked the public. Encased in a wooden barrel, with "Queen of the Mist" written on the front, she took the plunge over Niagara Falls.
The narration, in the form of an epic poem, is told from the point of view of Annie Taylor. Murray does a meticulous job of recreating a woman who was certainly progressive, but perhaps a little naïve for her time. Murray resurrects a woman who in all of her exuberance, ingenuity, and intelligence, was sadly still forgotten in history.
Yet this fact is what the reader learns is most certainly the point. A reader may ask his or herself why they have never heard the extraordinary story of this woman. Perhaps within the question also lies the answer. Annie Taylor, "Queen of the Mist," is a long forgotten heroine because she performed a task that everyone believed was impossible, but most importantly because she was not at all the individual that they expected or would have liked their hero to be. Annie Taylor is perhaps the epitome of the failure of the America ideal of a hero, as it is pointed out in the poem; "I was not a beauty or a man, yet/ there I was/the center of attention/ Someone asked about my college degree…" Her failure as a "hero" lies in the fact that she was, as a review in the Philadelphia Enquirer states "unmarketable."
This sad reality of how this story failed to be remembered and told, rightfully takes on the form of poetry. The form is significant and crucial because of this; reading the stanzas aloud is what brings the story the most justice. For once, Annie Taylor’s story can be heard—lyrically, poignantly, and dauntingly. It is clear from this that Joan Murray has brought justice to the story and to the memory of this forgotten heroine.
A review in the Boston Globe also noted that the manner in which Murray executes the story makes it possible to read it on multiple levels. One can read this book in metaphorical or mythic terms, as a decent into the underworld; in historical terms, as a struggle of women to move toward a new stasis in society; and in dramatic terms, as an epic, an adventure, that is at once ridiculous, brave and tragic. This story is certainly all of these rolled into one, but all the while it maintains its accessibility for all readers.
This is most certainly what is notable about Joan Murray’s poetry. While her poetry works to maintain its relevance historically and culturally, it does not lose its function either poetically or lyrically. A reader is able to understand, to contemplate the complications and oppositions that she shows, yet a reader does not get lost in these complications. This is a fine balance, which Murray has gracefully executed.Jessica Firger is an Intern at the NYS Writers Institute and an English major.
The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank is neither a novel, nor a conventional collection of stories, but a sequence of stories involving a single character and arranged chronologically. The book jacket evades the question of genre and calls the work simply, "fiction." The stories represent episodes in the difficult love life of a single protagonist at different stages in her evolution, from youth to incipient middle-age. Jane Rosenal appears intended as a kind of urban "Everywoman," a Jane Roe amid the vast, unhappy American love scene. A faint Jewishness only makes her seem more universal in a world of dysfunctional romance and wry one-liners defined by "Seinfeld" and its derivatives.
Although most of the stories are at least partly comic, each possesses a slightly different tone, colored by Jane's age, the predicament that preoccupies her, and the particular man who defines her moment. Some have noted the lack of a singular, wholly unified character, but Jane's variety seems to me to be precisely the point: personality traits (confidence, sense of humor, cynicism) wax and wane throughout the course of a life.
The first story is one of initiation. Jane's sardonic observations of adolescence give clues to her future personality and presage her problems with men. She compares her own rapidly expanding breasts to those of a small-breasted and beautiful older woman:
I'd told my theory to my friend Linda, who wanted to be a social scientist and was always coming up with theories herself. I'd concluded that breasts were to sex what pillows were to sleep. 'Guys might think they want a pillow, but they'll sleep as well without one.'
She'd said, 'Guys will sleep anywhere if they're really tired.'"
Throughout the book Jane seeks wisdom by studying other women, other couples, her own relationships, reading novels, going through analysis—nothing helps. In the final title story, she breaks down and buys a self-help guide, How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, modeled on the 90s bestseller, The Rules, a ruthless guide to bagging men. The book instructs women to arouse the male hunting instinct by playing hard-to-get, and to flatter the male ego by suppressing the female one. The authors of the fictional version, Faith Kurtz-Abramowitz and Bonnie Merrill, jump off the pages into Jane's mental life, criticizing everything she says and does, evaluating her make-up and clothes.
Jane is a stand-up comic by temperament, and if anything sustains her through various ordeals, it is her love of shtick. Shtick serves as a form of self-assertion, though quips are often made in the privacy of Jane's mind. Humor compensates for her losses, distracts from self-perceived defects, and boosts her confidence. In The Floating House, Jane vacations with her boyfriend James at the Caribbean home of his ex-girlfriend, Bella, and her husband. Bella appears bent on seducing James. The situation is made more threatening by the fact that much of the conversation takes place in French, which Jane does not know. She copes with her anxiety by making wry commentary:
Jane's shtick comes to dominate her persona in the final story. Faith and Bonnie, authors of How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, try to keep her quiet, to put an end to the zany jokes that pop out of her mouth:
'Listen,' I say, 'funny is the best thing I am.'
Faith says, 'Making jokes is your way of saying Do you love me? and when someone laughs you think they've said yes.'
This gives me pause.
Faith says, 'Let him court you.'
Bonnie hands me my deodorant. 'You can be as funny as you want after he proposes!'"
The struggle between Jane's inclination to make jokes and her inclination to appear passively feminine provides much of the tension of the story.
Melissa Bank received the 1993 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. Her stories have appeared in Zoetrope and The Chicago Tribune, and have been featured on NPR's "Selected Shorts" program. She is currently at work on a novel, and is adapting The Girls' Guide for the screen.
Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the New York State Writers InstituteTop of Page
Susan Orlean and JoAnn Wypijewski
Investigators of Humanity
Perhaps being a journalist also involves being a sociologist, anthropologist, psychologist. Perhaps being a journalist requires not just being an investigator of the story at hand, but also an investigator of the strange and disturbing truths of human nature. Perhaps a good journalist goes beyond the whos, whats, wheres, whys and whens of a story to reveal a larger picture, a study of how a particular event informs the general order and disorder of society and culture.
Susan Orlean and JoAnn Wypijewski are each such a journalist. Their work is clearly not only about getting the perennial journalist "scoop," nor is it solely concerned with representing an already public or known story. Both writers are not just investigators, but rather they use the stories that they unravel and report on as a way to reveal something more, something crucial that is outside of the story’s parameters. The form that both writers choose to work with is what distinguishes their articles from other writers of nonfiction. Orlean and Wypijewski create pieces that resemble essays much more than journalistic articles. Their unique engagement of a longer length essay as opposed to a straight journalistic article allows both writers to dig much deeper into their respective stories. Through the form, their writing takes on a more analytical perspective, because it allows both writers to explore issues outside of the event, which are crucial to understanding the sociology and anthropology of these stories. The essential questions that both Orlean and Wypijewski posit are ones that are not usually examined and are even dodged by other journalists, because they are perhaps too provocative, or too revealing of the underside of the story. Both of these writers prove that examining such stories from a more subjective angle can reveal valuable meaning in the everyday chaos and curiosity of human behavior. The manner in which they investigate these stories shows how the events fit into the context of the larger story of our society.
Journalist Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992. Her articles have appeared in Outside, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Esquire. Her second non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, began first as an article for The NewYorker, and grew into a longer project as Orlean’s interest in the story’s subjects and subject matter continued.
The book is written in an investigative tone, and her account of its bizarre story line shows that sometimes truth is in fact stranger than fiction. The story centers around renegade plant dealer, John Laroche, who managed a plant nursery and orchid propagation laboratory for the Seminole tribe of Hollywood, Florida. In 1994, Laroche and three Seminole Indians were arrested with rare orchids stolen from a wild swamp in south Florida. Laroche had planned to clone the orchids and then sell them for a small fortune. Upon being caught, he set off one of the weirdest legal controversies in history, which brought together environmentalists, Native-American activists, and devoted orchid collectors. Orlean follows Laroche through the swamps of south Florida, and into the strange subculture of aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers who thrive on their fixation and obsession with this exotic plant.
The idea of obsession arises as a driving force behind Orlean’s perspective of this story. The book is not so much about following Laroche’s strange saga, as it is a comprehensive, sociological study of human fixation and obsession to the point of danger and larceny. Orlean shows through all that she encounters and explains, the strange and bizarre enticement of beauty, especially the fixation for what is difficult to obtain and sometimes in fact actually even unattainable. The author herself remarks how though this is a singular tale, its theme is all too familiar. Behind this unusual story is the very common human desire to "believe in something, to make your life extraordinary in some way, the yearning for a way to make your existence make sense, and of course the incredible seduction of beauty." Orlean also recognizes how this singular story ties into the larger fabric of our society, by explaining that her novel serves the purpose of examining "American culture in unexpected ways."
Indeed this too runs as a theme in Orlean’s work, as seen in her previous book, Saturday Night, which is another study of American Culture, in all of its bizarre and disturbing manifestations. Orlean combines her observations with information obtained from academic authorities on human behavior to speculate why people engage in any number of activities excessively and obsessively on Saturday nights. The book chronicles her travels throughout the United States, including stops in Portland, OR, New York City, Miami Beach, and Elkhart, IN. Through her travels, she discovers a multiplicity of activities that Americans engage and pursue on their downtime. Such activities include cruising, bowling, watching television, dating, drinking and dining, gambling, thieving and murdering to name a few. Through these she is able to show the impertinent vitality of the American spirit
JoAnn Wypijewski is a senior editor of The Nation. Her articles have appeared in New Left Review, Il Manifesto, and Counter-Punch. Most notable, are her feature length articles for Harper’s Magazine, in which her roles as anthropologist and sociologist shine through. Her two most recent articles for this publication are The Secret Sharer (July 1998), her own unique coverage of the story of Nushawn Williams, a young man in Jamestown, New York, who was accused of knowingly infecting numerous young girls with the AIDS virus; and A Boy’s Life (September 1999), the story of Matthew Shepard, a young, homosexual college student who was beaten to death by Aaron Kinney and Russel Henderson in the town of Laramie, Wyoming. The fact that both of these stories were previously highly publicized by the media adds an interesting twist to Wypijewski’s writing. Wypijewski uses the form of the longer length essay as a means to make critical and analytical observations about both of these stories and the ways in which the underlying issues have been handled in the media.
Most coverage of these stories aimed to make clear the details of the story, and its effects on those involved directly and indirectly: the how and what of the story. Wypijewski shows that it is the details that surround the actual story, the why, that is important. In both articles, she delves into the history of the town, its education system, social life, working and economic conditions. All of this proving that things such as brutal murders and AIDS epidemics don’t happen to a certain place, rather all of the malfunctions and dysfunctions of a place cause these things to occur.
In The Secret Sharer, Wypijewski re-presents the victims of the one-man AIDS epidemic. She explains that previous media coverage had presented the girls that were sexually involved with Williams as "victims," "looking for love," and naturally painted Williams as the victimizer. The girls were viewed and labeled "as stupid or sluts or as victims," while Williams was presented with even less complexity as "monster," "sexual predator," or "one-man plague." This, Wypijewski explains, demonstrates the media’s attempt to place everyone involved in such a story into neat, well-organized categories, to maintain a literal as well as figurative division of black and white. She infers that quite possibly the kind of attention that the problem received, both from the media and government officials, can be said to perpetuate the underlying problem that caused such a crisis to occur in the first place. Wypijewski has sought out the gray in this story by attempting to challenge the stereotypes conjured up in its previous coverage. Through her investigation of the so-called victims, their setting and circumstances, she makes the conclusion that no one is to blame except, perhaps, the disease itself.
Similarly, in A Boy’s Life, Wypijewski comments on the media’s need to reinvent the story, to recreate it, to falsify the facts. "The ‘story’ passed into myth even before the trials had been set, and at this point fact, rumor, politics, protective cover, and jailhouse braggadocio are so entangled that the truth may be elusive even to the protagonists." This article seems to have the underlying message that it is too easy to claim that this was only an occurrence of gay-bashing, and that Shepard was beaten and murdered only because he was gay. The complexity of the situation and of those involved cannot be reduced to such an easy conclusion: " It’s possible that Matthew Shepard didn’t die because he was gay; he died because Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson were straight."
The way in which the American media often-present stories such as these tend to perpetuate the stereotypes which can be said to have caused the problems to begin with. Wypijewski re-presents these already highly covered and controversial stories, by rewinding them back to the beginning. She looks not only at the occurrences of the actual events, but also at conditions that surround the event; time, persons and place. This is the information that most journalists may overlook and view as irrelevant to the actual story they are investigating.
In both of these articles, Wypijewski handles the problem of setting in a similar manner. In previous coverage of both of these stories, other journalists had noted the shock that these events had taken place in such small, closely knit, "middle-American" towns. The towns served as only a back-drop for the events. The event is what highlighted the town for the media, the town then only became a mere setting. Wypijewski turns this all around, by looking at the conditions and elements of the setting that have informed the event, rather than looking at the conditions and elements of the event which have informed the setting.
What Susan Orlean and JoAnn Wypijewski’s pieces do is create a different sense of importance for a journalist. Through their articles, they inform answers to larger questions about the nature of society, humans and even the role that media plays through the presentation of the stories. Both writers use their title of journalist in order to evaluate the whole brigade which they completely immerse themselves in. This is recognized, for example, in the way in which both Wypijewski and Orlean take the time as investigator and get to know individuals of the town, who are not involved in the story, to get a better sense of how the story and its larger issues fit into the specific setting. This gives Orlean and Wypijewski a better sense of the ways in which social, historical and anthropological issues come in to play. Perhaps their work is in an effort to forge a new role and definition of journalist. A journalist shouldn’t just get the story, but rather also be an individual who can simultaneously step away and step into the details, in order to make sense of the problem in a larger societal context.Jessica Firger is an Intern at the NYS Writers Institute and an English major.
Captured by Aliens
Belief in aliens, for many Americans, provides a satisfying substitute for established religion. Aliens resemble G-d in that they are more knowledgeable than we are, and yet take a flattering interest in us, just as G-d does. The main advantage of aliens is that their existence is susceptible to rational proofs, even though government busybodies refuse-- for unclear reasons-- to disclose important evidence to the public. Thus, belief in aliens must make do without rational proofs, and manages to thrive nonetheless.
Not all true believers are nut cases eager to share the details of abduction fantasies. NASA chief Dan Goldin sees the search for extraterrestrial life as a top priority. Skeptics counter that NASA's new interest represents nothing more than a bid to capture the support and approval of a gullible segment of the electorate in an age of tightening fiscal controls. But many scientists do believe, for entirely rational reasons, that extraterrestrial intelligence might or must exist.
The obvious basis for this belief is the fact that the universe is big. A big place might conceivably contain all kinds of stuff. This reasoning finds mathematical expression in something called the Drake Equation; using it, scientists have inferred that there could well be ten thousand, even a million, advanced civilizations out there. The obvious challenge is: Where are they?
And so the unresolved and unresolvable debate continues: Perhaps, many say, aliens don't exist after all. Perhaps, others counter, we would see them if only we opened our eyes. Perhaps they already live among us, shop at the supermarket, etc.
Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter and columnist, chronicles the American obsession with aliens and all of its implications in his book Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe, which is scheduled to be released in November. The search, he concludes, tells us less about aliens than about ourselves: what we love and what we fear, what we desire most and what we willfully ignore. His travels have taken him from NASA to Roswell, New Mexico; from the radio antennae of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), to the trailer parks of ufologists, spiritualists and channelers.
Although Achenbach believes that the alien obsession says much about America, he also believes that it is a big distraction from more pressing matters and intriguing questions. "There is ultimately only one place to go when you want to study life in the universe and get some handle on how it comes into existence, and how it evolves. You have to go home, to Earth, to terrestrial biology. And here is where the big surprise comes. It turns out that we do not really understand what life is, or why it is here. We don't understand ourselves. We are the mystery! You don't have to look into the night sky to find the enigma... Intelligent creatures might not be unique, but they might be extraordinarily rare, extraordinarily unusual. It's worth checking out: We might be the anomaly we've been searching for all this time."
Joel Achenbach has written two regular columns for The Washington Post: "Why Things Are" and "Washingtology." He is a regular commentator for National Public Radio and the author of three books based on his newspaper columns: Why Things Are, Why Things Are: The Big Picture, and Why Things Are and Why Things Aren't. He has also written for GQ, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Slate, George, Redbook, Allure, Esquire, Seventeen, Utne Reader, and Mother Jones.
Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the New York State Writers Institute
Exploring Cultural Values
Gish Jen's running chronicle of the Chinese-American immigrant experience features all of the best ingredients of such fiction: the self-mockery of those who know they do not quite fit into the mainstream; the acute observation of small nuanced details that are often overlooked by those who need not translate in two directions; the mixing of perspectives into something fresh and startling.
Jen's penchant for awkward predicaments and good one-liners inevitably invites comparison with Jewish fiction: its anti-heroic heroes, its self-analyzing clowns, its twofold sense of comic inadequacy and injured merit. But comparisons between the Jewish and Chinese immigrant experience are also inevitable. Both cultures value intellectual and economic achievement above Western ideas of manliness and womanliness. Both groups are said to have achieved success in America out of all proportion to their numbers. Both carry cultural baggage so rich, complex and ancient that much of its meaning eludes its owners.
But if Jen possesses Jewish sensibilities her suburban background is also responsible: she did, after all, grow up in Scarsdale, New York. Her novel, Mona in the Promised Land, recounts a Chinese girlhood among Jews, a romance with Jews and Judaism, plans to convert taken up and abandoned. The novel represents an important contribution to Jewish fiction and presents an entirely unique perspective on Jewish life. Cynthia Ozick calls it a "novel of radiant charm and human warmth... completely delightful." Jen's latest collection of stories, Who's Irish?, departs from a Jewish focus but mines the same seam of ore found between abutting cultures.
The title story is narrated by a Chinese-American grandmother whose ideas of responsibility, discipline and work clash with those of the younger generation. Her daughter has married into a family of feckless, under-employed Irishmen. She mocks her son-in-law's lack of initiative, and his lack of imagination in matters regarding both business and food. "Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking," she says. Her granddaughter is beginning to exhibit behaviors unimaginable to an Old World matriarch: "Sophie is three years old American age, but already I see her nice Chinese side swallowed up by her wild Shea side." When Sophie throws a shovelful of sand at her, the narrator says, "I am not exaggerate: millions of children in China, not one act like this."
Mothers play important roles in Jen's fiction, present even when they are absent. A number of stories feature brief appearances by stubborn, proud, self-righteous, mothers, often residents of the minds of their offspring, critical commentators, superegos. Mothers occasionally move in with adult children and make trouble, as in the story, "Just Wait." The following conversation takes place between the married couple Rex and Addie, when it looks likely that Addie's mother Regina will move in:
"There's always murder," he concluded. "Smother her with a pillow."
"Don't you think that will be ethically problematic? If we didn't even first try to discourage her from moving in?"
"We'll smother her with a pillow and see if that discourages her."
Another recurring type in Jen's fiction is comparable to the kleine menshele, the "little man," of Yiddish and Jewish-American fiction (e.g., Gimpel the Fool, Willy Loman). Jen's "Birthmates" tells the sad story of Art Woo, a second-rate salesman in a failing industry, a man whose wife has left him, who is patronized by colleagues, tyrannized by bosses and even picked on by street children. At the same time, the author reminds Art Woo that success is relative: a kindly African-American woman remarks resignedly, "You folk rise up while we set and watch."
One of the best stories is "Duncan in China," which tells the immigrant experience in the reverse direction. Duncan Hsu, a Chinese-American who at thirty six is still "finding himself," goes to the People's Republic in the 1980's to teach English. Tired of American materialism and of disappointing his mother, Duncan seeks meaning in the China of his ancestors, the China of noble, pure philosophies and sparely decorated porcelains. What he finds instead as an instructor at the Coal Mining Institute is a China of poverty, misery, petty power-mongering, and pervasive spying by citizens on fellow citizens. It is a China that is at once familiar and entirely alien, like Duncan's Chinese cousin who has the family dimples and jaw, but is stricken with TB, bent by a hard life and hungry to a threatening degree for Duncan's help.
Jen's first novel, Typical American (1991), established her in the first rank of Asian-American authors. The Washington Post called it "a rich addition to the ever-growing body of immigrant literature, a lovingly imagined, thoroughly satisfying account." Jen's short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Best American Short Stories of the Century. This autumn, Gish Jen received the prestigious Lannon Literary Award in Fiction.
Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the New York State Writers Institute.
A Comedy of Values:
J. S. G. Boggs and Lawrence Weschler
J. S. G. Boggs works in the medium of India ink and high-grade currency paper woven with security threads. Lawrence Weschler works in the medium of nonfiction prose. Boggs is frequently arrested, occasionally put on trial and, so far, always acquitted in connection with the crime of making and passing counterfeit money. Weschler is a prize-winning cultural affairs essayist and staff writer for the New Yorker, who for more than a decade has followed with serious if amused attention the trials and shenanigans of J. S. G. Boggs, and has chronicled them in Boggs: A Comedy of Values (1999). The two artists are more similar in their life's work than first apparent: both explore "the mysterious and arbitrary nature of value."
Boggs's biggest preoccupation is the insubstantial nature of paper money. It would appear both absurd and remarkable that a piece of paper could actually be worth the value assigned to it by the numbers printed upon it. When Boggs mints his own currency, he effectively poses the question: Why are two nearly identical objects (the counterfeit and the real McCoy) not identical in value? His work also poses a related and equally puzzling question: What is the value of art? The nearest he comes to an answer is that all value (particularly that of non-utilitarian objects) requires a collective act of faith. His art reminds us of the strange weightlessness and abstraction of value-- the inherent problem, for example, with calling an English pound a pound. A one-pound note drawn by Boggs is appropriately titled, "How Much Does an Idea Weigh?"
Boggs takes the trouble to protect himself from charges of counterfeiting: he makes his drawings on only one side of the paper and alters symbols and other graphic elements of authentic money. Although he makes actual purchases with his money (a total of about $250,000 worth of goods and services as of 1993; a good deal more by now), he informs the participants in every transaction that the money isn't legal tender. Much of Boggs's art lies not only in the beauty of his drawings, but in the drama of the transactions themselves: awkward negotiations with skeptical waiters, cashiers and store owners.
After each transaction, Boggs sells information regarding the whereabouts of his phony bill to the highest-bidding art collector who is free to negotiate the resale of the bill from the first recipient. A completed piece, suitable for exhibition in a gallery or museum, contains the framed bill as well as any "residue" of the transaction: receipts, change, photographs, packaging, ticket stubs, etc.
Boggs's art is not without its perils. In 1986, British agents raided his London gallery and confiscated his work. The Bank of England charged him with four charges of counterfeiting British currency, punishable by up to 40 years in jail. Though acquitted, dozens of drawings remain in custody. Recently, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal of the Treasury Department's confiscation of over 1,200 "Boggs bills" and related materials. Boggs is negotiating to have the materials transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.
In addition to his numerous brushes with the law, Boggs is the occasional victim of other misfortunes resulting from his work. Swiss counterfeiters have attempted to pass off imitation "Boggs bills." An art critic once solicited a bribe. And, inevitably, art burglars once broke into his London flat and stole his phony bills. Other hardships resulted from the artist's vow to live for one year off of his currency alone. A reluctance on the part of many merchants to accept the bills made food scarce at times. The impossibility of using pay phones and laundromats posed their own inconveniences (the artist confesses to having worn dirty clothes for much of that year).
Lawrence Weschler's interest in Boggs grows out of an ongoing preoccupation with the boundaries and definitions of value, art and authority. In the 1980's, Weschler profiled a Yugoslav performance artist whose art consisted of stripping naked, parading the streets and getting in trouble with the authorities. The author's 1995 bestseller, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, provides a tour of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, a museum that playfully abuses the authority of museums to assign value and authenticity to its artifacts: some exhibits are false, others true, others half-true.
Weschler is perhaps best known for his New Yorker pieces that profile obsessive individuals: cartoonists, scholars, comics, artists, collectors, circus performers, etc. These pieces, many of them collected in A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces (1998) often implicitly pose the question: "What is the value of a given art, field, preoccupation, obsession?" Weschler's subjects are consumed by their chosen activities, often at great personal sacrifice.
Boggs: A Comedy of Values is more than a profile of J. S. G. Boggs: it provides in small compass an entertaining history of money in its various forms. Also included are fascinating discussions of money as an art form, and subversive uses of money by artists in modern times.
Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the New York State Writers Institute
To my mind, her unique blend of the personal narrative and the political theme is one of the great strengths of the work. She writes, in fact, at a nexus where the poetics of the Poet, Cavafy, meet the poetics of feminism. Like Cavafy, Kizer looks at the great events of history from the position of ordinary people caught in their web. Like her sisters, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, and her great sister intelligence, the late Muriel Rukeyser, she refuses any distinction between the personal and the political. The result is an astonishing poetry which sees the deaths of Roosevelt and JFK through the eyes of ordinary people at the time, sees the Einstein and the discoveries that led to the Atomic Bomb through the eyes of college students and families traveling on trains, and sees working class issues through a little girl's separation from her childhood nursemaid. Above all, however, it the language of the poems themselves. Their wit, energy, ironic tone, mix of wild comedy and astute phrasing, and its social and intellectual passion make this work an astonishment and a lasting joy. Please welcome Carolyn Kizer.
Australian novelist and non-fiction writer Thomas Keneally has written over 20 books. He is critically acclaimed for his novels, which seek to portray people and events in significant periods of history. He is particularly noted for the way in which he handles the historical moments of war and persecution of different racial, ethnic, religious, and political groups. Each one of Keneally’s works is a record of history, as well as a voice of an individual’s struggle, terror, and journey.
His novels have engaged many significant historical moments, while they are also remarkable for their characterization. Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974) interweaves the brutalities of fifteenth century warfare with the history of Joan of Arc. Gossip From the Forest (1975) is a recreation of the events that led up to the Armistice of 1918. Season of Purgatory (1977) is a story of a young English doctor’s involvement with Yugoslavian partisans during World War II. Confederates (1980) examines the American Civil War from the Southern point of view. Schindler’s Arc (1982), (published as Schindler’s List in the U.S.) is Keneally’s most widely recognized work. This novel along with A Family of Madness (1985) recreate stories of World War II. To Asmara (1989) deals with the effects of politics and war on famine, and is based on the predicament of Eritrea, a former country in northeast Africa, now part of Ethiopia.
Keneally’s clever and well-crafted mixing of fiction and history has unsurprisingly made him a recipient of a long and impressive list of writing awards. His internationally acclaimed novel Schindler’s Arc (which was recreated for the screen by Steven Speilberg) won the Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize, which is England’s most prestigious award for fiction. The Booker McConnel award caused a debate over whether the book, which is based on the true story of a German industrialist’s efforts to save more than one hundred Jews from Nazi persecution, was in fact truly fiction. Other awards that Keneally has received include the Miles Franklin award in 1967 and 1968; the Captain Cook Bi-Centenary Prize in 1970, as well as the Heinemann Award for Literature and the Royal Society of Literature Award in 1973 for his novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972).
As a whole, Keneally’s work explores the tensions that are caused whenever there is a political, social, cultural or economic change among a society and people. The turbulence of many of his characters represents the turbulence of the time and society that he is writing about. In addition, it also appears that Keneally’s own dubiousness for change is also invested in his work. He explained in 1985, that a great deal of his work is "concerned with the contrast between the new world- in particular Australia- and the old; the counterpoint between the fairly innocent politics of the new world and the fatal politics of Europe". Keneally recognizes that the flux he saw take place in Europe was one that has also greatly influenced his life as a writer. The contrast between the old and the new world appears as tension in much of his work, and he claims that he has had to readjust and resituate himself as a person and writer by reassessing his place in the world as an Australian.
Keneally’s new novel The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English Speaking World, not only displays this theme of tension between old and new world ideologies, but also is a novel that works as a more personal voice, for he traces his own familial roots in Ireland. The novel tells the story of the Irish diaspora, and shows through a meticulously researched and epic prose, 80 years of Irish history. Keneally tells the story through the point of view of Irish prisoners, some of whom are actually his ancestors. Through his rich narration we learn of the plight of the Irish, how they suffered and survived through oppression, famine and emigration. Through the lives of many of the characters, readers learn of the tragedy and triumph the Irish faced in being dispersed from their home, to settle in parts of the new world; America and Australia.
The Great Shame is receiving critical acclaim all over the world. Critics and readers praise Keneally for the way in which he tells the collective story of the Irish people through individual accounts of personal tragedy and success. Esquire praised Keneally for bringing "the art of the novelist to this epic." The New York Times called The Great Shame "an event, a broad-shouldered integration of personal and national history."
Through the lives of the people that he pieces together, both famous and obscure, we are given a clear picture of, as Keneally says in the end of his book, the "piquant blood and potent ghosts of the characters to whom we now bid goodbye." The stories that he presents to us pay homage to the individual’s struggles and pay tribute to the resilient spirit of the Irish people, seen through the hardships that they survived in their home country, and through the collective idealism and hope that they brought to settling in the new world.Jessica Firger is an English major at the University at Albany and a student intern at the NYS Writers Institute
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The time is September 1990, the place, The American University in Washington, DC. Twelve or thirteen graduate students, myself among them, sit around a conference table fanning themselves with notebooks while they wait for the new writer-in-residence, Alice McDermott, to arrive. The humidity is oppressive, as it always is this time of year in the nation's capital, but not enough to stifle the group. In fact, all but one or two are chatting away, speculating on the prospects of working with one of America's more celebrated younger authors. I have never met McDermott. I don't even know what she looks like. But I have read her second novel, That Night, and was sufficiently humbled by the grace and power of its lyrical narrative to understand what a rare opportunity it will be for me to study with her in this advanced fiction workshop.
Lost in my reverie of expectations and hopes--that through this nearness to her some of the magic may rub off on my own writing--I am surprised to see one of the graduate students quietly stand up and survey the table with a polite smile. Unassuming in her white blouse and slacks, the young woman is one of the only two people who had not been caught up in the buzz of conversation. She is slim and small in stature, with short brown hair and a youthful face--its most commanding feature, large, expressive brown eyes. A few moments pass before the chatter dies down, trailing off, at last, into scattered mumbles and a hushed inquisitive silence.
From a distance this woman might pass for an undergraduate. From the other end of the table, however, she's not much different from many of us, in her mid to late twenties, I would guess, which probably places her below the average age in this writing program. So why is she now telling the rest of us that we should probably get started? 'How about waiting for McDermott?' I think, an incipient grin ready to bloom on my sweating face--until, of course (dull blade that I sometimes am), it dawns on me and everyone else in the room that this is Alice McDermott.
Whatever equilibrium was thrown off in that moment quickly reasserted itself as Alice (from then on she was always "Alice," never Professor or Ms. McDermott) took charge of the class with the kind of confidence and control that come from an intimate understanding of craft. She was far too modest to hold up her own works as exemplars of one or another technique. Instead she drew upon other writers to demonstrate the approaches she encouraged us to explore. But one had only to read her own novels to see that what she was trying to get us to explore (experimentation with perspective, voice and elliptical narrative, the lyrical and evocative possibilities of prose) were the very things most dear to her in her own fiction. To my mind this made her teaching all the more valuable, since it focused on issues of craft which intimately concerned her in her own writing life, and those passions in turn became our own.
Alice turned out to be as generous, insightful and articulate a teacher as she was skilled as a prose stylist. But that didn't mean she handled us with kid gloves. Hemingway once said that all great writers were blessed with "a built-in, shock-proof shit detector." When Alice became my MFA thesis director, we had many discussions over the course of my last year in the graduate writing program, and that detector went off more times than I'd care to admit. But what I would have to acknowledge now, with some distance, is that it was always right on the money. She was a great reader, which is half, at least, of what makes her such a fine writer. When I consider the oft-debated question of whether writing can actually be taught, Alice immediately leaps to mind, because I'm not simply convinced that she helped me to become a better writer, I know she did, as only another writer could.
Alice's own career is a case-study in beating the odds. Her debut novel A Bigamist's Daughter was accepted first by noted literary agent Harriet Wasserman, and then by editor Jonathan Galassi when all she had to show for it were fifty pages of an incomplete draft. When I was a student of hers Alice frequently pointed out to me that success in publishing has as much to do with timing and chance as it has to do with talent.
This was the kind of statement that was typical of Alice. Always modest, she usually downplayed whatever attention her own work was getting and worked to instill in young writers a belief that if the breeze was blowing in the right direction, with the right editor standing downwind, hard work and rigorously applied talents could pay off for anyone. After all, it had worked out that way for her. I was always grateful, however, that she qualified her encouragement by including diligence and talent in the equation. Even if she had some good fortune on her side when her first big chance came along, she also had some rare skills at her disposal (though she would never say that herself), and in the end what she wished to do was encourage young writers, not delude them.
When A Bigamist's Daughter finally appeared in 1982 it received unusually high praise for a first book. In the New York Times, Anne Tyler called the novel "impressive" and said that: "Alice McDermott sounds like anything but a first-time novelist. She writes with assurance and skill. And she has created a fascinatingly prismatic story."
The protagonist of A Bigamist's Daughter is Elizabeth Connelly, a cynical young editor for a vanity publisher who becomes romantically involved with a client in search of an ending for his novel about a bigamist. As Elizabeth gets drawn into Tupper Daniels' life and his fiction, memories of her own history with a father who was frequently absent in her childhood begin to surface and questions naturally arise about his own possible bigamy. In McDermott's earliest work we already see a variation on a theme that has since become a mainstay in her fiction. As she has expressed it herself:
"Discovering as I write keeps me interested and challenges me," Alice said during that same visit to the Writers Institute in 1992. "I don't have any better idea of where it's going or how all these things will work, but I want to stay with it. I have a sense, and maybe this is intuition, I have a sense that things are lining up...although I don't know what I want yet. The other kind of writing is just getting there."
Alice has never pretended that writing is anything but hard work for her. She writes a complete draft in longhand first, and it can take a very long time for that draft to be finished. She revises her work ceaselessly, adding new material and taking material away, a constant ebb and flow of new creation and deletion that hold each other in check, writing and editing complementing one another through the long arduous process.
When Alice's editor Jonathan Galassi changed publishing houses to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, she came with him. In Galassi she had found an editor who was patient enough to work with her during the several years it took to find the right balance for her second novel--an editor, moreover, with excellent instincts and no inclination to impose his own will on her continuing and often frustrating efforts to find the story that wanted to be told.
The result, at long last, was That Night, which was published in 1987 to widespread critical acclaim. On the front page of the New York Times Book Review, David Leavitt praised the novel as "a work that, in spite of its much exploited subject," [the cultural barrenness of middle-class suburban life], "revels in a rich discursive prose style that belongs entirely to Alice McDermott, and that stands completely out of sync with contemporary literary trends." Though the other major reviews of the novel were not unanimous in praise of what Leavitt called the novel's "almost operatic grandeur," most reviewers seemed to be in agreement that the novel stood apart from the mass of contemporary literature on the middle-class suburban experience, by combining a complex moral vision with a rich prose style almost antithetical to the predominant current of minimalism in fiction.
In the end the positive reviews of That Night by David Leavitt, Richard Eder and Rosellen Brown, among others, were vindicated later in the year when the novel was named as a finalist not only for the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, but for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize as well--a rare enough distinction for any book, let alone a second novel.
"Yeah, I was four times a bridesmaid that year," McDermott said to me once, with a laugh that indicated she was more delighted and surprised than disappointed.
In 1992 That Night was adapted to film by Warner Brothers and released. As is frequently the case with film adaptations, the movie is disappointing when considered alongside the book. When I was a student of Alice's I remember her telling me about how strange she found it visiting the movie set. She admired the director's care and attention to detail in recreating the period and place (a Long Island community in the early 1960s), but the very concreteness of the set and costume choices for the adaptation were limiting in a way that her narrative was not.
The real strength of all of Alice's novels lies in her narrative and prose techniques, which override all of the individual details the prose conveys. What seems to be of greater importance to her as a stylist and storyteller is how language itself shapes our stories, making them more evocative, and perhaps even more subtly provocative, in the process. Above all Alice is a novelist for whom language has always been (and will always be) the most important consideration. She constructs her prose with magnificent skill, producing passages (detail building upon detail, clause dovetailing into clause, sentence into sentence) whose emotional, psychological and sensory effects bear a much closer resemblance to poetry than to most kinds of prose. And how can those qualities be adequately captured on film?
While she was visiting the New York State Writers Institute in 1992, not long after the film adaptation of That Night was completed, Alice made a very telling observation about novels and film:
In keeping with Alice McDermott's continual experimentation with perspective and voice, the third-person limited omniscient narrative is largely filtered through the collective perspective of the three children of Lucy, the only sister who is not a spinster living in the small apartment with Momma. The elliptical narrative has as its center the bookends of May's wedding and her funeral only days later. A former nun, May is given a new lease on life when a romance develops between her and the neighborhood mailman, Fred, but the hope and beauty of this relationship is colored nearly from the outset by the reader's foreknowledge that May's new life will be cut terribly short only days after her "rebirth."
In the midst of the drama are the children, collective observers trying to make sense of the mundane routines and rituals, as well as of the recycled histories--told and told again and relived through each telling--that define the Towne family. There is a strangeness that permeates this novel, a sense of mystery that approaches mythic proportions, as the children bear witness to the women's problematic relationships with one another; this strangeness takes on even greater depth as the children attempt to make of sense of the Catholic orthodoxy that defines the women's existence, taking tangible shape in the rites that play themselves out over and over in the apartment, which has more the feel of a church than of a domestic sphere.
During her visit to the Writers Institute in 1992, McDermott had this to say about the Irish-Catholic focus of At Weddings and Wakes:
With characteristic modesty, however, McDermott noted that she "didn't beat Tom Wolfe or any of the other authors," maintaining instead that the panel of judges "was a good panel for me. My kind of novel appealed to them." Or as she might well have put it to the group of students fortunate enough to be studying with her these days at Johns Hopkins University: the breeze was blowing in the right direction, and the right group of judges just happened to be standing downwind.
Like At Weddings and Wakes, Charming Billy has an elliptical narrative. The story of Billy's tragic life and eventual decline into alcoholism seems on the surface to be constructed piecemeal, through a narrative that moves almost seamlessly between the day of Billy's wake and the landmark events that determined the course of his life. It becomes evident early in the novel that the principal tragedy that contributes to his decline is a lie, or necessary fiction, created out of convenience to spare his feelings. When this fiction gets out of control, its repercussions affect not only Billy himself, but the entire circle of family and friends who cannot but love him despite his self-destructive bent.
So again we see Alice McDermott's preoccupation with the idea of how stories can be more powerful, even more real, than the historical actualities from which they spring. Her explicit treatment of this theme, married with discursive narrative techniques that go beyond the experimentation of her earlier works, give Charming Billy a depth and scope only suggested by her previous novels. Her story is actually many stories that take shape as a complex web formed from independent subjectivities acting on one another, and reacting, under the mediating influence of time. To an earnest reader of Alice McDermott's work, Charming Billy subtly displays the most complete fusion of theme and technique in her writing to date. The result is a work of startling power.
Since my years as a student of hers, Alice McDermott and I have kept in touch. She has been very generous to me in many ways. Knowing that I speak Swedish, she suggested that I try my hand in translating a major Swedish writer who was not well known in America, Stig Dagerman, and she provided invaluable editorial input on my early efforts to translate and publish his stories. Thanks to her guidance and help I was able to put together a collection of his short stories in English. Such generosity is typical of Alice. She never forgets some of the breaks she got when she was a young writer, and when it lies within her power she will do what she can to give other writers a helping hand.
I spoke with Alice by phone last Thursday, (September 16) for the first time in many months. It was late morning and ordinarily it would be impossible to reach her at that time, since she writes only while her children are at school. Unplugging the phone, she enters her workaday writer's mode for five or six hours in the seclusion of her Bethesda home, until it's time to pick up Will, Eames and Patrick from school, and her mother's duties resume.
Last Thursday, however, the usual routine was interrupted by Hurricane Floyd, less an act of God (at least in the Washington, DC area) than of media hype. "The kids are home from school today," she said. I could picture her grinning on the other end of the line--I know that grin, the one that goes with the particular tone of voice I was now hearing.
"A little rain--one of those Washington, DC, weather emergencies." She conjured up an image we both knew well enough, of the city coming to a standstill, of plows and emergency crews running around hare-scare, traffic backed up for miles, at the onset of the first frost.
"There's another hurricane coming in right behind Floyd," she said. "That's the one that'll probably do the real damage. Everyone will get back from the evacuation and say, 'Oh you want us to leave again? Right!' You know, last night I was watching the news, and there was some poor guy down in Florida who cut down all the trees in front of his house because he didn't want them demolishing it. Then, of course, the storm passed right by." She clicked her tongue sympathetically, then added, almost as an afterthought: "Now there's a story."
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.