Friday, June 28, 2013

Sullen Art

28th June 2013

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among the wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Here is the definition of "Touchstone," from the Oxford English Dictionary: A thing which serves to test the genuineness or value of anything.
The above lines from Dylan Thomas's poem "Fern Hill," are like a touchstone to me, because they distill everything down to that point of immersion, which is what art is about. It doesn't matter how you get there, but it matters that you go deep. It matters that you go down to the heart of the matter. From there you can move forward.
Something Paul Harding told our class last week has kept after me: when he was showing "Tinkers," to agents and publishers, the response he got was consistently, "No one wants to read such plotless, description laden, prose in this day and age." His answer? "Well, I do." He put his manuscript away, but never wavered, never felt the need to insert a car chase or a love scene for the sake of it. He didn't compromise his art, and he was rewarded for that.
I knew the truth of that already, but I needed to be reminded. When he signed my copy of Tinkers, he wrote among other things, "Go art!" a strangely unpoetic exhortation from such a poetic writer. But he is right: the art of writing is what we are about; we are the keepers of the mirror. In our craft or sullen art, exercised in the still night when only the moon rages.... another line from Dylan Thomas, but I can't keep my hands off that bloody stone:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Poetry is the neat single malt whisky; prose is the wine we drink with a meal. The key is the  intoxication, and without it there is no art. (A footnote to the tradition among American writers which has confounded intoxication of the heart with intoxication of the body. Even Dylan Thomas fell prey to this.) The craft lies in creating the same intoxication in the viewer; the struggle is in trying to gauge what effect our mumblings in the night might invoke.
Being at a writer's conference brings home, too, the paradox facing the modern writer who is plunged willy nilly into what has become the industry of book marketing.  The writer may no longer be sullen, for he is now the salesman, too. (Steinbeck and Faulkner, both winners of the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes, but both sullen, met once and sat in awkward silence. It wasn't that they weren't interested, just that conversation wasn't their medium.) But for every class about the craft of writing, there is a panel of publishers and agents offering advice for the hawking of their wares.
So you buy and sell, just as Harding eventually did, but you have to keep going back to that stone you fondled in order to create it. When all is said and done, when the trumpets have fallen quiet and the fanfare ceased, you go back to your desk within the same four walls and you stare off into a middle distance where your art exists and asks to be given voice.

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Menschliches, Allzumenschliches

21st June 2013

Sometimes these blogs feel like me marking time, a Robinson Crusoe effort to score life onto a piece of desert island bark. But that is only because I was born with a fertile imagination and daily events in my twisted universe take on gargantuan proportions. It is both a blessing and a  curse, and made me very difficult to live with when I was a child. Perhaps even more so now. Too often, I am like that mother in Neil Simon's "The Good bye Girl," shaking her daughter awake to insist that the new flatmate's guitar playing in the middle of the night must be disturbing her.
Enough of the preamble. Here I was all week floating around the Aspen Writer's Conference, handing out the postcards advertising my book which came overnight from New York (thanks to my editor at Simon and Schuster!) Being terminally socially awkward, it suits me much better to be able to hand someone a card instead of actually converse with them. The cards are bright green, green cards, in fact. So buy my book and you will automaticially have leave to stay in the USA for an indeterminate time. "Time is indeterminate," is what I should say when people ask me what my book is about. Instead, they get handed a green card.
Enough of the post preamble. Let's get down to the nitty gritty. I came to the conclusion after attending (and part of the time moderating) the local writer's group for ten years, that gatherings like this are only of limited value. I am always telling beginning writers to attend them, because at that stage a sounding board is a good thing. It is helpful to know if your writing is on the level of some of the folks (usually of the male sex) who came to our local writer's group and mumbled a section from their journal (when the journal comes out, you start to worry.) More often than not, it was beyond incoherent. You can't do better than a roomful of people agreeing on a piece of writing missing its mark. But for more advanced writers, the variety of reader responses might only be confusing, and you definitely shouldn't change anything unless it resonates at a deep level with yourself.
And now to Paul Harding, at whose feet I had the privilege to sit this week. The paradox of the artist is that he or she is the vessel for what Nietzsche calls "the desires of the gods," without actually being a god him or herself. This is Peter Shaffer's point in his brilliant play "Equus." Mozart couldn't possibly have lived up to Salieri's high minded expectations, because he was a human being. And it is the all-too-human folly of the supplicant to expect him to.
Harding has a new book coming out in September called "Enon." (Geez, my editor would never have allowed me to keep that title!) You should buy it, because Harding is a  Mozart of the word. You should buy it because in this age of high literary fashion, he is an artist who talks about the essence of truth and beauty. That's why he couldn't publish the pulitzer prize winning "Tinkers," for five years, and why it is some kind of minor miracle that it was published at all. I am expecting the same great things of "Enon," and I will be equally fanatical about foisting it on everyone who comes within arm's reach.
Paul Harding is a man with his particular heroes. He is annoyingly sure of his ideas. (Anyone who knows me will be laughing at this point with a dark sarcasm.) He has his own particular universe, his own cosmology. I sat at his right hand and nodded at most everything he said. But my hackles went up when he opted for the thology of Saint Paul, John Calvin and Karl Barth and dismissed Nietzsche as a quack. Calvin? I said, that's like putting your money on Quasimodo over Heathcliff. (Well, I wanted to say it!)
In "Equus," Salieri, hidden from view but witnessing Mozart spout obscenities, is aghast. If truth is beauty and beauty is truth, how can Mozart be all so human? How can Paul Harding have this rigid avenue of himself so divorced from himself as an artist?
This is the question. And the truth is, it is Paul Harding's prerogative to have avenues of himself that look any way he likes.
All that counts is that Paul Harding keeps churning out books. Whatever it takes. A hundred years down the line, this is all that will matter. Vessels become broken and fall away, but the unfathomable essence of what they contain persists. In the beginning was the word.
Get your hands on a copy of Tinkers and see how good literature begs to be read again. Get lost in the images and the layers, and don't concern yourself with the speaker. He's a nice guy, but for the purposes of art, he doesn't matter. And neither do I. Thus spake Zarathustra.

Friday, June 14, 2013


14th June, 2013

When I was growing up in the rural west of Scotland, Tinkers were the mysterious travelling folk who lived in canvas and overcoat shacks down by the shore where no other locals dared tread. They were called Tinkers because in times past they went from door to door repairing pots and pans. Tinkering tinsmiths, they were. Back in my day, they were treated like a different species, say Neanderthal, something vaguely human but not quite. I'm not sure what their ethnic background was, but they had blond dreadlocks and were somewhat inter-married so that they all looked quite similar. In the end, the council insisted they move into proper houses, a subtle move of extinction that has been played out the world over by the moral majority.
But the travelling folk from the western highlands of Scotland are not what Paul Harding has in mind by Tinkers in his book by the same name. This "Tinkers," might just be one of the few books that, unlike the travelling folk, makes it through to posterity. The adjudicators for the Pulitzer prize in 2010 clearly thought so, too.
Paul Harding's book is about time, how it shifts under our feet, especially as we approach that black hole called death. They say time does not exist close to the edge of a black hole, which makes it all the more poignant that Harding's dying protagonist reflects on his life as a tinkerer of clocks. His wife has silenced the many clocks on the walls of his house so that he won't be disturbed by them going off at all hours, but he sends his grandson to wind them all back up.
I'm on my third read of "Tinkers," a small book at just 191 pages. In an interview at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Harding points out that in any other genre, be it visual or musical, we would never count one encounter with a work as sufficient. We buy a painting, hang it on the wall and keep looking at it. How many times have we listened to Beethhoven's 5th? But with literature, we seem to think that after one read a book should be relegated to the shelf.
Delving into "Tinkers," is like snorkelling through a coral reef, as opposed to taking a quick shower. You're startled by this unexpected underwater beauty, with all the colours and shapes floating past you, the forms of substrata. But most of all, when you get out from under it, Tinkers pulls you back:
"The sun was going down. It sank into the stand of beech trees beyond the back lot, lighting their tops, so that their bare arterial branches turned to a netting of black vessels around brains made of light."
You can't read a sentence like that just once. It is a dream sequence you want to live through again.
He breaks the rules, too. Any teacher of writing who has endlessly warned their students about run-on sentences should take a look at Harding's. Some sentences stretch the entire page, too much to unpack in one sitting. You tell yourself you'll catch it the next time around. But you don't curse him.
How this little book came to be a Pulitzer winner is a story in itself: he showed it to mainstream agents and publishers who shook their heads at him and told him there was no way they would ever be able to sell a book like this. He put it in a drawer for three years. When it was finally picked up, it was by a tiny non-profit publisher which, oddly enough and wonderfully ironically enough, operated out of the former Bellevue Hospital for the insane. He received one thousand dollars in advance. (I wonder what he did with it?) There was no campaign for Tinkers to win the Pulitzer, it just sort of bubbled up from the depths. People waxed lyrical about this most lyric of books. Word got around. Somebody knew somebody who was on the Pulitzer board.
Every morning next week, I am going to be studying with Paul Harding at the Aspen Writer's Festival. By the end of next week I will have more to say about him.
And just because this blog is supposed to be following my own publishing history, let it be known that I turned down cover art for about 500 postcards that I'm handing out at the writer's festival this week. It sported a generic castle and talked about my protagonist's bewitchment by a handsome laird, ignorant of the fact that there were neither castles nor lairds in Scotland at the time of my story. I needed the cards, though, so I asked them to paint them over green and frog march the handsome laird off to some other book that was actually about a handsome laird, there to languish in doggerel heaven. They're arriving on Monday.

Friday, June 7, 2013


June 7th, 2013

I received a note from a friend in Kansas City this week, and it is worth quoting, because it shows just how whimsical this publishing business is, and why you shouldn't give up:
Last Saturday at our local independent book store successful novelist Nancy Pickard joined in a "conversation" with a new author in her 30s named Jenny Milchman.  They spoke to an overflow crowd.
Here is Jenny's story: she wrote 8 novels, bing, bing bing. Didn't sell. In 2000 she got an agent. In the 13 years since, she has had 3 agents and had her eighth novel come SOOOO close to being accepted by several major publishers, always to miss at the very end.
She wrote Nancy a fan note about Nancy's book, Scent of Rain and Lightening. They got into an email exchange and when Nancy learned how close her novel had come several times, she offered to read it. (Something she normally never does.) And she liked it! So much that she sent it to her editor at Ballantine (something else she has never done.)
Her editor liked it! And the novel is now out in hard cover. (Title is Cover of Snow). Ballantine accepted the mss 2 years ago and even though it was already highly polished, Jenny spent another year of polishing under the aegis of her editor. She and husband and two school-age kids are taking SEVEN months to go around the country to all the independent book stores they can find. Their kids are being "car-schooled."
The late John Denver who hailed from this area, was due once to meet his brother for a round of golf at a local course. When his brother arived at the clubhouse, he was handed a couple of golf balls by the superintendent: "John said to give you these. He says, for this game you're going to need balls." Same goes for writing and publishing and any other stage for which there is a glut of performers standing in the wings.
The problem is, that glut of artists needs to get through a barrier manned by folk who often wouldn't know a good piece of art if it jumped up and did a belly dance in front of them.  I know people all through the arts facing this. I always say there are two levels of art in any given age: there's real art and then there's fashion. Fashion always has its guardians, the ones who need to attach themselves to trends to give themselves some sense of identity. These are the guardians of buzz and not to be mistaken for wizards. Wizards are few and far between.
 Take a look at the TV cult programme American Idol. Talent and charisma characteristically resist definition, and yet week after week the "judges" dismiss this one and accept that one according to some fashionable criteron of what makes a great performer. If Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or most icons of music history had stood before them, they would have got the gong before they reached the end of their first line. You can't quantify this stuff. It's like trying to catch a cloud. Your hands go right through, and in the case of American Idol you end up with a name that goes on to be forgotten.
So, the lesson today is: Keep pushing ahead! Elbow those twits out of the way and get to the stage. Sing your song for all your worth. Turn deaf ears on the boos if they come, and on the applause if it comes instead. Both are empty responses. You should be listening to your heart. That's all. Here endeth the first lesson.