Traditionally, November-December is headache season for me. Whether it’s a result of the changing seasons or the constant damp in the woods or things being out of bloom is anyone’s guess. I call it Migraine Weather and, in honor of Hemingway, I call the clusters that come on me over these weeks Three Day Blows since that’s about how long it takes for me to normalize between bouts. They all follow the same pattern: tightness in one temple—left or right, it doesn’t matter—followed by hard, hot jabs made worse when I move my head. And then the ripsaw. They used to worry me; they don’t any more. Sometimes they’re very bad and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes I can break them early with chemical cocktails of beta blockers and pain-killers that make me pant and keep me off-kilter and sometimes there’s nothing at all that can touch them.
So, regardless of how I feel about things, and regardless of that fact that my current Three Day Blow blew in on Election Night, I can’t in good conscience blame this latest migraine on the American Political System. Much as I’d like to. Because that would be easy. It would be easy to pop some more painkillers and pant and stay in a dark room and wait until it’s over. It would be easy to convince myself there’s nothing that can touch what’s going on in the country right now.
Very early on in Democracy in America, the great French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered: “Would it be wise to think that a social change which lies so far back in history could be halted by the efforts of a single generation? Can it be believed that democracy, which has destroyed feudalism and overcome kings, will retreat before the wealthy or the middle classes? Will it stop now that it had become so powerful and its adversaries so weak?”
No, it would not be wise. No, it cannot be believed. No, it will not be stopped.
Regardless of whatever political leanings I might have, I was proud this week to observe the machine-parts of government come clicking together, to see the innumerable toggles flipped and dials turned. Regardless of the outcome, I was proud to see the peaceful transition of government proceeding apace and prouder still to see the throngs in cities across American come spilling into the streets in peaceful protest—the faces were anguished, the signs were angry but the right of the people to peaceful assembly remained untrammeled. On television, a political commentator called the protests “pointless” because the fact-of-the-matter had already been decided and the new status quo was a fait accompli.
It would be wise not to believe this. Because, it seems to me, the idea of a status quo is or should be an anathema to a healthy democracy. And, if a democracy is unhealthy—as ours certainly is—then the Founding Fathers have given us the tools to fix the machine and send it on its way again. Because the machine of government is ours and no one else’s.
On Election Day, after having done my part, I spent the better part of the morning raking leaves. We’ve got a couple big maples, a corkscrew willow, a lot of different ornamentals. For a lot of reasons, I’d barely raked at all this autumn so it was a big job. With the recycling bin full and the work not half done, I began raking leaves into a central mass, circling the trunk of a cherry tree just outside my office window. I noticed the cherry was sick, some rot had set in that was splitting the trunk and withering the branches. But the sun was trying to come out and there were patches of blue sky through the rainclouds. And it felt good to be out doing physical, tangible work as opposed to sitting behind a desk worrying about abstractions like sentences and paragraphs. The pile grew, larger and larger, and I began to feel better and better. I had voted, I was working, I had achieved my life-long dream of having a book published and, wonder of wonders, a follow-up due out in France next year. I took a picture of my magnificent pile of leaves and sent it along to a friend who I knew was worrying down the day; I put a tomato in for scale because I wanted her to have a jokey moment in a fraught day. Then I went inside, showered, and sat down to my abstractions.
And then I watched the election results as they came in and I thought of Tocqueville and the tyranny of the majority and how it’s not often you can look up out of your life and see the abstraction of thought take concrete form.
I am by no means a political animal. My motivations lie elsewhere.
This is a luxury I don’t think any one of us, as Americans, can afford any longer.
My inclination was to take to the page and rage, it was to give vent to my frustrations with a machine that has become too ponderous and complex for the body politic to operate, let alone understand. These days, the machine that we the people have inherited and necessarily tinkered with, has become so labyrinthian that it’s hard to even approach it, let alone influence it. But rage and frustration are the spoiled little children of fear and I am nowhere near a nimble enough writer to manage much eloquence in the face of all that.
What I can say is, the America of my heart is not the America that is. Maybe we are close to a real Golden Age and, maybe, being close means being beset by demagogues as they struggle to preserve ways of life that no longer fit the beautiful society we have become and are becoming. Maybe it means becoming political animals and keeping closer watch on the hands that flip the switches and turn the dials.
No, not maybe. The machine of government is ours and no one else’s. We cannot shut ourselves in dark rooms and wait out the next four years. There’s work that needs to be done—simple, commonsense work like not fostering or tolerating the rhetoric of hate and allowing everyone to feel safe on every street, in every state. The dead leaves need to be raked. We must treat the wither in the branch and in the trunk that poisons the whole.
In 1861, the widow of de Tocqueville wrote to a leading abolitionist of the day: “You are a most volcanic people, and when one fancies you are in a dead calm, out bursts a tremendous storm.”
I call it headache weather.
*apologies and respect to Carl Sandburg
I know nothing of Paris.
In the middle of my French tour for Wilderness I had half-a-day and night to spend in the City of Lights but we were bone-tired so the evening was spent at a noodle-stand somewhere near our hotel and the night was spent in our hotel room trying to get out from under our jet lag. I don’t think we even opened the curtains and we slept twelve hours.
So then we only had a morning left.
We wandered away from the Odeon Hotel in the 6th arrondissement and into the Luxembourg Gardens then down the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the Seine. The street trees were leafed-out and you could smell things cooking and you could smell tobacco smoke and it was raining that morning and the rain made sharp, pocking sounds on the umbrellas all around us. We went to Notre-Dame and then inside; I paid for a machine to flatten a disk of copper with the cathedral logo then promptly lost it. I remember being struck by the statue of Charlemagne and, especially, the magnificent mustache of the warrior holding his horse’s reins.
Then, with the morning running out, we wandered back. We vaguely looked for the Eiffel Tower but the skyline was socked-in. Kat took pictures of the many wonderful doors we happened across and I tried on a variety of Interesting Hats because all my writer-friends seemed to wear Interesting Hats and I’ve always been, alas, hatless. I bought two scarves and we had tiny coffees at tiny tables out on the sidewalk in the rain under the dripping, leafed-out trees. We laughed over the French title for The Hangover 3: Very Bad Trip 3, got lost twice, helped another American tourist get unlost, pined over the noodle-stand (which was closed now), got lost once more, then finally found our hotel again in time to throw our bags in a taxi and head for the train station.
Our return trip from my reading tour of Southern France only took us briefly back into Paris and it was in the middle of the night. It was still rainy, still cloudy, so the City of Lights was far more sedate than its reputation and, the next morning, we were on a plane home.
So I know nothing of Paris.
But I know this: for half-a-day and night, regardless of what I saw or did not see, regardless of rain and jet lag or lost souvenir tchotchkes, everything we saw that was old was new and everything was welcoming and bright and lovely. Being in Paris, even for so short a time, made me feel like a citizen of the world and left me forever improved as a man and human being and, for that, I will always be profoundly grateful.
And I still dream about that noodle-stand.
Just a quick post to let you know my author website has been revamped.
Check it out if you get a chance:
http://www.lanceweller.net (you will have to cut and paste this due to WordPress issues)
I don’t often share work-in-progress with anyone other than my wife; and her only rarely (she’s a fierce, blunt critic with an excellent ear for terrible sentences so I need to be careful of my teacup ego in showing her pages) but, much like what happened with American Marchlands, I’ve gotten pretty excited about the shape my new book, The Age of Iron, is taking and wanted to share a page or so. I’m still feeling my way through the story but the characters are starting to pop. With that in mind, the following takes places in the first dozen or so pages of the book where we have a group of old men gathered in the morning at their favorite diner reminiscing about a famous, local killer of men.
“I remember Orson Storey,” said Otho. His one eye was pale and the scar where the other had been was pale as well. “I saw him once but I never talked to him. I saw that bear skin Ole Andersen had hung up in his store. I saw that. But Orson Storey wasn’t born wrong like some folks think. He was born sick and small and kept getting sicker. Then he got a fever while he was still just a little chap. Boiled his brains, they say. And, of course, his mama was already a crazy woman, so that didn’t help him none. Folks still like to talk about how crazy that woman was.” He shrugged and cut his eye toward Bill Loveless. “But he was a wild man. Orson Storey. The Wild Man. People like to tell about him swinging through the trees like an ape. Loggers would tell about him peeping in bunkhouse windows at night and scaring them half to death. He did kill some people, sure.” Otho took a sip of coffee and made a satisfied sound. “Killed moren we probably know about and, whenever they tried to catch him, he just went deeper into the woods. Sent them that went in after him back out again with their asses full of buckshot. Shit. But you can’t go back like that. Back into them woods. Not to stay. You can’t go back to wildness like Orson Storey tried to. He tried and they finally killed him for it.” The one eye was far away and the shucked-out one was a folded, cinched-up looking thing rimmed with fine black hair. “Shit,” he said, “you can’t go back anywhere to anything ever. It’s all got to go forward. One foot after another until you’re done. Until you get to wherever it is you’re supposed to be. And that’s how it’s been ever since man first put his plow into the dirt.”
They looked at him. “Jesus,” said Ed Ray. “You all right, Otho?”
“What?” said Otho.
“I don’t believe I have ever heard you string so many words together at once,” said Runacres.
Otho scowled and rubbed his old, empty socket with the side of his thumb. He looked across the table at Trevor. “You knew him, didn’t you?”
“No, I never did meet the man,” said Trevor Wilson. He sighed and his facemask moved with his breath. Coffee stains had blossomed on the rough cloth and he hung his head a moment as though he’d collect his thoughts and then he hunched his shoulders. The could hear the air moving out of him and thick, wet throat sounds and they looked away. Trevor gripped the table. His eyes watered. Something spattered against the inside of the mask. He took the paper napkin out from under his knife and fork and wet it in his water glass then leaned so they could not see him as he dabbed clean the mask and the remains of his mouth. After a few moments, he leaned back in his chair and sighed as though exhausted. The damp mask moved defiantly. “But I did know the man who finally killed him,” he went on. “I knew Steelink.”
With my new novel, American Marchlands, finished (well, as finished as these things ever are; which only means, really, that I’ve surrendered it to the Powers That Be and am now, anxiously, awaiting Word from On High—hopefully I’ll have some official news I can release soon but, for the time being, I will say my love affair with France continues. And deepens!), I’ve begun work on something new.
Right up front, this entails a lot of inactivity. This means wool-gathering, staring out the window, reading and then reading some more and it means breaking in a new notebook. This step is important because everything goes into it. The notebook. THE Notebook. Noodlings and doodlings and interesting factoids that probably won’t ever get used but have to be put on paper so they seep into my brain. Bits of pertinent slang and chunks of scenes and dialogue and full blown characters and plot lines that won’t make the final cut. Scraps of paper get shoved in there with notes or single words whose relevance to the work at hand, when I return to them later, will be deep mysteries. Internet effluvia gets printed out and scotch-taped into the Notebook along with bits of things copied out of library books that actually turn out to be useful. The perfect dream-form of the novel, which is never, ever attainable, goes into the Notebook and fills it and fills it until it becomes something more, until it earns its capital “N.” And, finally, the Notebook is important because, if I follow my own history, I’ll be carrying it around for three years or so as I work on whatever this new book finally becomes.
My American Marchlands notebook was a 200 page Norcom Composition with stiff, marbled covers. Odds are you’ve seen its like poking out of student backpacks or tossed onto tables at Starbucks. And it was fine, it held together well and did its job no matter how much I abused it. My system was: fiction up front, history in the back. Like a mullet in reverse. So, my ideas for various scenes and character backgrounds and plot ideas started at the beginning, then, for all the historical detail I didn’t want to forget and needed to keep straight, I’d flip the Notebook over and record back-to-front. So, contrary to my nature, I had an organized system to keep things straight.
But a new book demands a new Notebook and, this time around, I’ve upgraded a bit. My The Age of Iron (as I’m calling my new novel-in-progress) Notebook is a hardcover Moleskine 5×8 ¼“ with an elastic cord to hold it shut (something that became an issue in the last Notebook). A hipster notebook, yes, but it’s black so you know I’m serious. So far, there’s no organizational scheme whatsoever and, so far, I’ve made a LOT of notes for this new book. So far, I’m okay with that.
The Age of Iron, as I see the dream-form of it, is a look at the logging camps and towns of my beloved Washington State in the early 1900s. It’s a look at timber violence and cold machinery and the First World War in France and northern Russia. It will mix logging with local politics, war weariness, cowardice, serial killers, life-long friendships, tenderness, mercy, and hate. So, it will encompass the world.
Of course, I’ll fail. Abjectly, spectacularly. Of course, there’ll be a period where I’ll think I’m writing the Great American Novel and a much longer, more profound, period where I know I’m writing the worst piece of crap it’s possible to write. But, after trying for so many years to be able to think of myself as a writer, the chance to make the attempt is worth it in more ways than I can tell. By the end—in three years or however long it takes me—the novel probably won’t resemble anything close to the dream of it I have now and that’s okay because I know the ending and whatever it takes to get there, to earn that ending, is what I signed-up for. Which is writing.
And that ending, that last sentence? It’s already written. In the Notebook.
I’ve said it before and it’s probably obvious yet still bears repeating: I love books. I love their weight and their heft, I love their smell and the sound their spines make when you open them and I love the promise inherent in their very being. So it was a special sort of torture for me to spend ten days in France, surrounding by books, and not be able to read a single one. Not even my own.
I only visited a handful of French bookstores but I was struck, at every one, by how bright they are. The spine of a French book—that is, a book produced by the French publishing industry–is, for the most part, a white thing, unadorned by the sort of graphic flourishes we in America are accustomed to. This makes the effect of walking into a French bookstore akin to walking into a cool room. Something Kubrickian, maybe, like the strange rooms Keir Dullea walks through before meeting the Star Child only without all the menace, or the Korova Milk Bar without any of that off-putting sexual weirdness. At any rate, I found the interiors of French bookstores welcoming enough though serious and, yes, a little intimidating.
But the French booksellers . . . Ah! The French booksellers were warm and vibrant, excited by books and pleased to see me and (rightfully) proud of their shelves. They were generous to a fault—each and every one—and the breadth of their knowledge and passion were apparent with every word. In France, booksellers take classes on how to sell books—special training and education—and the way they speak about literature was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I couldn’t really keep up—though I enjoyed trying to—and, more than once, I wondered who the hell I thought I was, making appearances in these cool, beautiful rooms and having so little to say that could add anything to anything at all.
But, even for all that, even for being functionally illiterate in their country, the French treated me like a visiting dignitary. In beautiful Aubenas, at Le Grand Café Français, the owner, Maxime, gave me a copy of the French edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (or, as the French have it, Méridien de sang)because I mentioned I collect them (now have three) while his partner, Alice, invited us into their home to show off her newborn kittens. In Aix-en-Provence, the owners of Librairie Goulard took me on a walking tour of the old city and pointed out the old advertising on the sides of the buildings, brass pigs, and the secret sexual symbology hidden in the wrought iron-grill work of long-closed brothels.
Christian, owner of La Librairie Nouvelle in Voiron, gifted me a cd of funky, French blues and one of some even better jazz and his co-presenter, Sophie, read a section from Wilderness that, even though I couldn’t understand a bit of it, sounded as lovely as music. And in Vienne, Alain, co-owner of Libraire Lucioles showed off the city’s ancient Roman ruins—temples, walls, and a little stretch of one of the Roman roads that once stitched together an empire—while his partner, Renaud, grinned appreciatively when I chose KISS’s “God of Thunder” during my radio interview then turned me on to Stanislaw Lem which I’m pretty sure I’ll be forever grateful for. Finally, in Lyon, Ivan, the owner of L’esprit Livre, treated me to not only a lovely tour of the city but some excellent conversation (and more good leads for future reading) on Napoleon, the Battle of Austerlitz, and the tactics of the times as well as an excellent meal which included a bowl of seasoned fat.
At every stop along the way, while I was fretting and nervous about what I was supposed to be doing and how not to come off like an ass, I was treated to kindnesses unlooked-for, excellent food, marvelous shelves of beautiful books, and kindred spirits who seemed to love books in the same ways I do . . . though, of course, they could actually read them.
So I just returned from touring France in support of Wilderness. A short, small tour that opened with a literary festival at St. Malo, which is in Brittany, and which, I’m told, is lovely. I saw very little of the physical landscape—the Atlantic, the old city walls, the last resting place of Chateaubriand on its little tidal island—because my time was spent engaged with readers. With speaking to and meeting people. With talking about Wilderness and why I wrote it and how it happened. I think, in the end, I got the better of the deal. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a bit about how I found things Over There but, for now, suffice to say I went and came back and some of these things may have happened:
First and foremost I overpacked—badly—and my bags became anchors round my neck that I schlepped through train stations and crammed into the backs of taxis. I ruined one pair of shoes, looked extremely fat on French television, met a famous French film director (who went on to buy a copy of my book!), and I ate warm noodles out of a cold carton on the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris. I did not see the Alps but I did see the clouds obscuring them and I saw vast fields of brilliantly yellow Colza from the windows of fast-moving trains.
I drank one skunky beer and almost got into a fistfight with a hooligan. I took to wearing scarves and may have eaten a prune yet still lived to tell the tale. I definitely ate foie gras and considered trying snails but settled for duck. I ate chocolate like a fiend and I drank small coffees at tiny tables with my legs crossed and the wind upon my face and I felt writerly. I felt fine.
In Voiron, in the shadow of the Alps I could not see, I got to read a page of Wilderness aloud to a French author. This was good. What was better was listening to a pretty girl read another section aloud in French. What was best was the meal afterwards.
I went to Notre Dame and stood in awe and touched old, worked stone and breathed the stillest, holiest air I’ve ever tasted. I saw my little book in the windows of shops all over the south of France and was humbled and privileged at every stop. I talked Napoleonics with a self-avowed communist who, even still, believed in the Great Man theory of history and I was overawed by the high-seriousness and the real, breathing humanity of French bookstores. I appeared on French radio and got them to play a KISS song and, in Lyons, I stepped from a cab and threw my back out so badly it may still be there, flopping around on the cobbles.
All these things and more—things I’ll write about and things I won’t—will stay with me, I think. They’ll stick. Because, on that trip, I had some of my very best days, sitting at tiny tables, sipping coffee, feeling fine.
With the paperback version of Wilderness coming to bookstores next month, and, hopefully, new readers coming to the book, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a concern with the story that I’ve heard more than once now. And that is, the fate of the dog.
This is prompted by some very nice comments by a Goodreads reader who set the book aside after the prologue because they already knew what happens with the dog. I can certainly understand and empathize with these sorts of worries because all too often, in any form of entertainment, pets are handled in ways cheap and sensationalistic.
At readings for Wilderness, I often tell folks I wanted, among other things, to write the very best dog story I could and, to that end, I tried to treat Buster not just as a dog but as another character all his own—perhaps the most important character besides Abel Truman—because it is the character of the dog that makes Abel’s redemptive path possible.
I have always had dogs. Have always fiercely loved them and felt honored to be able to share my life with them. As my father is fond of saying: they give so much and ask so little in return. And while their day-to-day existence teaches us how to be better people, the relative brevity of their lives reminds us to treasure them. It is with this spirit that I wrote Wilderness and with that in mind that I would hope the reader approaches it.
There are things in the world that can be considered absolutely good. Dogs come to mind immediately. Books and libraries are two others. So, here on the cusp of March, I’m mightily pleased have been asked to attend a pair of events in support of books and the houses that hold them.
Firstly, Seattle’s getting back a bookstore that it was a tragedy to have lost in the first place. Luckily, it wasn’t gone for long. The Queen Anne Book Company is having its Grand Opening Weekend from March 1 to March 3 and there’ll be lots of writers showing up over the weekend to help them celebrate. I’ll be there March 1 from 3 pm to 5 pm to stand around and talking about books and reading and try and not look like too much of a dope. Come see me, I’ll sign some Wilderness for you…
And, secondly, the King County Library System is holding its annual Literary Lions Gala on March 23, 2013. I’ve been invited to rub elbows there as well, and will be joined by a bright constellation of NW lit talent. As an added bonus, I’ve bought (and plan on wearing) a suit. So, if nothing else, come out to see how uncomfortable I’ll be! Dennis Lehane is the Keynote Author and the Gala proceeds go toward King County Library System programs.
I’ve been nervous for a year. Ever since my editor at BloomsburyUSA told me they were giving Wilderness the gift of making it their lead adult fiction offering for fall 2012 and that they hoped I’d help support the book with public appearances and readings. I managed to put aside my anxiety over public speaking while I worked on the manuscript, shaping it up into its final form but then, after a decade of fretting over the thing, it finally left my hands forever and I was left alone with the new book I’m working on. And my nerves over what the fall might bring.
Summer went by. I worked on American Marchlands. I worried about Wilderness. I tried not to think about standing up in front of people speaking and reading words I’d plucked out of the air to try and make something with. But it’s all I could think about all down the long summer because the idea of standing up at a podium before anyone at all, with the facial control I have left, was deeply, badly frightening.
Years ago, a decade ago, just as I was finishing up the first draft of what would become Wilderness, I got Bell’s Palsy and the left side of my face went away. Off somewhere beyond my control as though it had never been. The long, branching nerve that fed that side of my face died. My speech was affected and my ability to hold water in my mouth. I could not smile nor frown. For weeks I could not blink. Normally, this is, at worst, about a six-week inconvenience but, for whatever reason, my condition persisted. Antivirals and steroids were no help. I was laid up with every little cold and flu to come down the street, every cruddy little sickness knocked me off my feet and I hurt everywhere, all the time. But then, one Wednesday afternoon six months in, a little twitch visited the left corner of my mouth and then slowly, slowly, scattered patches of my face returned to me. But not all of it. To this day, not all of it. So a sort of body-fear crept in around my heart. I became hypochondriacal when I never had been before.
And all summer all I could think about was making a drooling idiot of myself while trying to read Wilderness. I was afraid of not being able to do the book justice.
But then September came and I was in Mississippi on the first stops of my reading tour and everything that happened happened quickly. I was nervous, yes; I was trembling with fear (sweating badly, if you want the truth) but I noticed something after my first reading and then my second and then all the others that followed. I noticed that, once I was up behind a podium or seated in front of a crowd, that I was not nervous in the slightest. I found myself enjoying reading. I enjoyed reading to people because I quickly learned to trust the work. This is old advice that I’d never understood until I could apply it to myself. But, as is the case with ‘old advice,’ it is solid and good and true.
In the end, I’ve had a fantastic time these past few months of my book tour. I’ve had the privilege of reading at a lot of great bookstores to a lot of even better people. A lot of pages filled with words that I hoped might mean something to other people. And, now that this first, small portion is over, I realize with chagrin just how badly I will miss it.