Here’s a simple story. I go to an independent book store in a Midwestern town of around 14,000 people to talk about, read from, and sign copies of my new novel, Late One Night. The location isn’t far from where I grew up. I’m back in the part of the world I know best—those small towns and farming communities of southeastern Illinois. Reading is sometimes a tough sell here. Too many people are challenged by a lack of job opportunities. Too many people have made unwise choices that have led them to dire circumstances, or worse yet, to the wrong side of the law. Too many people are occupied with getting by day to day. Of course, not everyone falls into these categories; I’ve met plenty of folks who love a good book. Still, in general, as is the case all over the world, too much competes for peoples’ energies and spare time.
All day, this Father’s Day, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a particular belt my father wore whenever he wanted to be dressy. It was a black elastic belt that stretched until the buckle clasped. That buckle was a gold-plated “M,” the initial of our last name, a touch of vanity, I always thought, just a little too precious for my otherwise down-to-earth, often gruff, and sometimes crude father. It was a detail, in other words, that didn’t fit the pattern of what I knew about him, and for that reason, it is indeed precious, not in the sense of being excessively refined, but in the sense of being of great value. It’s a detail that rounds out my father’s character and shows me more about who he was.
When I was a younger writer, just starting to figure out what my vision of the world was and how to translate that onto the page—heck, it was a revelation to me to know that short stories and novels, and later for me, essays and memoirs, reflected the way a writer saw the world and his or her place in it; I thought I was just making stuff up!—I had to remember how much I loved this life even at the hard times. I had to remember that in the midst of darkness and pain, there was still beauty and joy.
My new novel, Late One Night, has been out now for nearly three weeks, and I’ve been doing a few readings, and have some more to come. It’s got me thinking about this thing we writers do in order to drum up interest in our books, this selling, if you will. We sell online, we sell in person, we sell in blogs like this. Normally, it isn’t our natural inclination to sell, but sell we must. We do whatever we can to get someone to pay attention to us and our books, and in that way we become needy children, waving our hands in the air, jumping up and down, shouting, “Me, me, look at me.” The whole enterprise of selling myself and a book I spent countless hours alone in a room writing is often distasteful—a necessary evil.
My Aunt Mildred passed away last week, so I’m rerunning this post from two years ago as a tribute to her.
When I was a small child, she took me to the gravel road that ran by my grandmother’s house and patiently sat with me while I hunted for rocks, which I found, for whatever reason, fascinating. I have no memory of this, but I felt it in every interaction between us thereafter—that patience, that encouragement, that love.
People often ask me how I know when I have material that I think might work in a novel. It’s no secret that each of my five novels has been based on actual events from the news, but news isn’t what first seduces me. What hooks me every time is usually something that I have to invent—characters in the midst of moral ambiguity. Something in the news might catch my eye, but before I can commit to spending the time and energy it takes to write a novel, I have to play the “what-if” game, and that game always leads me to what I consider the center of the book, and that center is always located within character. A reclusive math tutor who adores one of his pupils fails her at the moment of crisis. An elderly bachelor lets a shameful moment from his past dictate his life, yearning for connection while at the same time protecting himself from the outer world. A young girl falls under the spell of an older woman and finds herself torn between what she knows is right and her desire for love and acceptance. A talented gardener has to decide whether to go along with the status quo or to stand beside his neighbors. The key for me, when I test material to see if it has the depth of content that a novel must have, is whether the central event will meet the main character in a place of uncertainty.
I believe it was Eudora Welty who said that one of her biggest challenges in writing was to get a character to walk into a room. Such is the small business that looms large in the writing of any narrative. How do we make our characters’ actions convincing and properly motivated? How do we know when it’s time for them to walk into a room, or perform whatever actions they perform in the course of a story?
(In memory of my mother on Mother’s Day, I re-post this from a couple of years ago):
My Mother’s Hands
Because my father lost his hands, my mother made a gift of hers. Cuticles ragged, knuckles scraped, fingernails smashed—farm work showed her no mercy.
Her hands were made for more delicate things, but she gladly sacrificed them because, really, what else was she to do? My father needed her, and she loved him, so she put her hands to work on our farm. She should have had the soft and beautiful hands more suited to her soft and beautiful heart, but life had other plans for her.
It’s that time of year again—graduation—which means the time has come to bid a fond farewell to another class of MFA students. On Saturday night, here at The Ohio State University, we celebrated, as we always do, with a gala event at which twelve poets and prose writers showed us exactly what they’d been up to these last three years. The readings they did were dazzling and proof positive that something can happen in an MFA program, something necessary and good. This isn’t to say that the MFA is the only path to writing success—not at all—but only to say that people who are dedicated and hard-working can leave a good MFA program better writers than they were when they began.
I’m posting early this week because I’ll be in West Virginia visiting two campuses of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, a land of mountains and switchbacks and steep roads that don’t run straight. On Monday, I’ll be talking to the students there—students who have been reading my work—even though it means I won’t be here at Ohio State for the year-end English Department Awards Ceremony. I’ll have to ask my students to forgive me and to know that I’ll be with them in spirit to celebrate the good work they’ve done. I’ll have to ask them to understand why I have to go to West Virginia.