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Summer_10_14_redHat_BrokenLine.indd“It was in the first place, after the strangest fashion, a sense of the extraordinary way in which the most benign conditions of light and air, of sky and sea, the most beautiful English summer conceivable, mixed themselves with all the violence of action and passion. . . . Never were desperate doings so blandly lighted up as by the two unforgettable months that I was to spend so much of in looking over from the old rampart of a little high-perched Sussex town at the bright blue streak of the Channel.”  — Henry James, “Within the Rim”

The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light. The high Sussex bluffs were a massive, unbroken line of shadow from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter. Standing at the tall French windows, Hugh Grange held his breath in a vain attempt to suspend the moment in time as he used to do when he was a little boy, in this same, slightly shabby drawing room, and the lighting of the lamps had been the signal for his aunt to send him to bed. He smiled now to think of how long and late those summer evenings had run and how he had always complained bitterly until he was allowed to stay up well beyond bedtime. Small boys, he now knew, were inveterate fraudsters and begged, pleaded, and cajoled for added rights and treats with innocent eyes and black hearts.

DSCF6152Apparently Christine Rice was in a foul mood the day I called to chat about her debut novel Swarm Theory (University of Hell Press, April 2016). Although I did not read the book, nor had I done my research, I expected her to be more gracious. Sadly, she was rude and uncharitable. I had heard the rumors but, alas, she was much, much worse than the stories Hypertext Managing Editor Chelsea Laine Wells had shared with me (temper tantrums, screaming, etc.).

The following reflects our conversation. I have deleted all expletives (hers) from this draft. For the unexpurgated interview, click HERE.

SWFinalThis is how they get you: your whole life they fill you with stories about princes and poison apples and kindly dwarves and animals that chitter secrets in your ear and bunion-inducing glass slippers and just-right ruby slippers and needles that prick and the frog prince and a nice girl falling in love with a beast and, next thing you know, you’re in the back seat of a Monte Carlo with him pushing into you and all you’re doing is looking out the back windshield, into the blackness above the hilltop, wondering what’s next. Not what’s next after he pulls out, but what’s next? What’s really next, you know? Next for you because, as you’ve been thinking for an awfully long time, you’ve gotta get out of here. As that thought hits you full force, his torso pounding against the backs of your thighs and him asking, begging, really, “Can you, can you, can you?” and you not even listening to or, for that matter, feeling him, because the promise of something bigger than his football player love—bigger than this whole town—fills you with possibility and hope and you push his sweaty body off, climb through the bucket seats, pop open the door, and dance naked into the starless night.

51h6MXJbAjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_On its face, minimalism might seem like an ironic term for fiction—one more suited to architecture or interior design—but in describing the style of writing that still dominates many MFA programs, it’s entirely fitting. Featuring spare prose and terse descriptions of the everyday this is the manner of literary writing most easily taught, most simply reduced to a matter of craft. Often purposefully lacking in plot and story—and stripped mercilessly of personality—minimalism in its most realistic form can become a study not in nonfiction but in a sort of antifiction, work that may qualify as literary in ambition, but not effect. Unable to animate the seemingly realistic world it has created, minimalism often fails the most basic of literary tests. Like a song sung to perfect pitch, but without passion, minimalistic fiction can want for soul. It can lack magic.

lobster“My father was killed in Lubech!”

“Lubech—Lubech, that’s all you’ve been saying—Lubech,” Mother said.

True, Father did say “Lubech, Lubech” a lot on this trip. It sounded like “love” and “burning” at the same time. Kuzya and Lubasha loved playing “words.”

“In 1943, he was killed! It’s 1986! I just don’t see why I need to spend my May holidays this year bumping along these terrible roads, breaking the engine, being carsick, driving through snow and then dust and heat and running chickens and bugs—”

That was true, too. All kinds of bugs—mosquitoes, flies, some rare bugs Kuzya had never seen in Moscow.

mark polanzakOn the cover of the book POP! there are a bunch of scratched-out tags: A fictional Memoir, A fabulist Memoir, A Nonfictional Novel. A Novel. A Memoir. And then it says that it is just “A Book.” Why?

The heady reasons: I am absolutely fascinated by the mixing-up of genres. Life is not composed of nonfiction, of facts, of consistency, of predictions and correlations, of accurate memories. Life is made up of dreaming, of living in our heads, of imagining things that haven’t happened or we wish could happen, of thinking about people wrong, of creating stories and lies that we live by, of misremembering things, of finding out our assessments were fraudulent, of inventing fiction upon fiction in our ambitions, relationships, romances, careers, passions, hopes. Our real lives are as composed of fictions as they are of actual objective events. So, it makes no sense to me to put a label of “nonfiction” on something about our real lives. And, then oddly, reversely, crazily, in fiction, we try to tell the truth, when our everyday lives are more dreamt than lived. I see so much of life as parts of a developing fiction. It’s perhaps, for me, a protective device (see: my book all about making up fiction in order to process an unexpected catastrophe).

PROLOGUE TWO                   POP!_Cover

PORCELAIN GOD

The dudes who remodeled my mom’s master bathroom forgot to take away the old pink toilet. So there it stood, in the middle of our front yard—a constant amidst the turning, falling leaves of autumn.

We figured they’d be back for it, the toilet. After a week or so of rousing suspicion among the other residents of Green Street, the unspoken realization hit us: that pink throne was our problem now.

One crisp November afternoon, my mom and brother and I all found ourselves standing around the thing with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. My mug had a chip and read: “Nobody’s Perfect.”

“How heavy is it?” My brother tried his best to surmise the toilet’s heft with his mind then tilted it with his free hand.

Kim Brooks PhotoSo what should people know about you, Kim Brooks?

That’s really hard. What should they know about me? … Wait, why should they know about me?

 

Because you wrote a book. You want people to read that book. And people these days are interested in knowing about the people who write their books. It’s a spiritual value added tax.

Ah, okay. I see. Um, I’m a genius.

599105446454460d9c53a7721746d9af_xe8j5tIt was a typical, two-story frame house, the kind of colonial one saw all across the Corn Hill section of Utica, a small white house with a green roof, green shutters, a green door, a wide front porch with a swing and a couple of white rocking chairs and a view onto the street, the goings-on of the neighborhood. When Max imagined, as he occasionally did, what it might be like to have a family of his own, he saw them in such a house, on such a porch, in such a swing. Leading up to it was a walkway of gray paved stones lined by hedges. The hedges were expertly trimmed, never overgrown, curving gently into the front yard in which Irene and Abe had long-ago planted a peach tree that now towered almost to the second story windows and dropped its soft fruit onto the porch every July. The fruit never rotted there or went to waste. Irene swept it up into her apron, ushered it into her kitchen with its white counter tops scoured daily, covered in matching canister sets, its drawers full of egg whiskers and potatoes mashers, a cozy breakfast nook in the corner and coffee percolating besides the stove. It was a house with everything a man could want or ask for, a house with not just the basics a person needed to survive —heat, plumbing, a roof to block out the elements— but all the small comforts that made it a place that drew a person in, invited him back. Max looked up at the Auer home, at the sun hammering at the windows, the peach tree swaying lightly in the breeze, the white nubs of a dogwood overhanging the porch like little bells. And on the porch, the person who brought it all into being, a beautiful brunette planting flowers in a window box. Abe Auer had come to this country with nothing; now he had all this. Yet still he worried. Max stood a moment, dizzy in the drinkable summer air, trying to make the disjointed ends meet, and then he remembered why he’d come, that it wasn’t his job to solve all the human mysteries of the world. He stepped forward, waved hello to Irene Auer.

IMG_3561Opening Hijinks

Welcome to the Hall of Mirrors, Andy!

Stop it.

 

Really? I thought debilitating self-consciousness was your thing.

Not anymore. I’m way past that.

ContraryMotioncover9780812998283Late Saturday morning—a warm day with an armada of big white clouds overhead—Audrey and I head up to a wedding I’m playing in Glenview. I can’t afford to turn down a gig and I can’t afford to give up one of my days with her, so I sometimes impress her into service as my roadie. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind, maybe because she gets to wear her frilly white dress with the green sash and her shiny Mary Janes, or maybe because she gets a roadie’s prestige without having to perform any of a roadie’s tasks.

Today, for example, she’s only carrying her stuffed unicorn that had its electronic guts removed one grim day, just before I was asked to leave the Rogers Park apartment, when Milena apparently heard the unicorn’s song one time too many. Now, rolling my 85P harp up a broad concrete walkway to the church entrance, with Audrey and her mute unicorn in tow, I can’t help but feel we’re a pair of refugees from the land of nuclear families, making a bid for repatriation.

JMC Author PhotoIntriguing title, True Stories at the Smoky View. Is the Smoky View real? Have you stayed there?

Both the name and the location of the motel are fictional.

One summer, years ago, while traveling with my son, I stayed at a similar motel, but that was in Virginia, not Tennessee. On the other side of I-81, to the west, loomed very high mountains. By dinnertime the sun had already disappeared. The light was eerie. The sun had set, but not really. After dinner we went swimming, and there was a frog in the pool. My son, too, remembers it as a magical evening. He’s a herpetologist now. Maybe that frog cast a spell on him.

 

Hmmm. Could Jonathan be a stand-in for your son?

Jonathan’s a fictional character. To some extent, I suppose, he’s based on a boy I sat across from at dinner one night. I remember thinking: this kid has been adopted into the wrong family. But Jonathan’s an orphan, with a very different family history.

True Stories at the Smoky View coverVrai wished she had the nerve to leave Skip’s ashes and the box of things from his apartment on his mother’s doorstep. Why not loop Cassi’s leash around the dogwood, ring the doorbell, and run? She didn’t regret the phone call to his mother to offer condolences. Skip would surely have done the same for her. But this visit would be downright awkward.

She and Skip had both grown up here in Knoxville. Decades later they’d become close friends while working in the same library in Baltimore. Just up the street from that library, four days ago, Skip had been hit by a car. According to the article in the Baltimore Sun, the driver, an optician, claimed Skip had stepped off the curb with his hands over his eyes. The article had his name right, Jasper Pascal Howard, Jr., but said he was fifty years old. Skip was only forty-nine, two years older than Vrai.

Bittersweet Way, Skip had ruefully called this quiet, tree-lined street where his mother still lived, and for Vrai, too, his old neighborhood was steeped in sadness. Her best friend, Laramie, had lived next door to Skip.

Rollins_0921

 

So you’re doing the whole meta-fiction thing now?

No, just here to talk about my book with my favorite critic.

 

But you did try meta-fiction, didn’t you?

Yeah, there was a failed story that didn’t make the final cut in which a semi-fictional version of myself confronted all the book’s characters at the Cafe Kopi in Champaign, Illinois.

Deaver Book Cover_photo credit Ashley Inguanta“Vasco and the Virgin”

Vasco Whirly had been an English professor out at the college, but he didn’t get tenure. So he got on the safety crew out at the Murdock Mine, and it wasn’t so bad—his self-esteem was shot, and he didn’t fit in, but he did make a lot of new friends. Actually he didn’t. But he kept a lot of the old friends, Lowell Wagner in Psychology, Ann Rook in English, Gloria Steinem the local librarian, some others. All this took place in the dying prairie college town of Tuscola. This is more than you wanted to know.

Vasco never saw his friends much, and they never saw him, so it was hard to figure how they were friends. And his daughters, Michelle and Melanie Junior, were always off somewhere, and this left Vasco hanging around his old homestead doing things like staring down in the cistern or climbing around in the rafters of the garage. Sometimes he’d go all around the house opening drawers, and sometimes he’d take a shovel and dig in the narrow passage between his garage and the Rittenauers’ garage next door. The house was old, built in 1882— he’d poked around for hours in the dim of the musty basement, finally even using a metal detector he’d rented. In fact, he did the whole yard with the metal detector, working day after day, half the community driving by on Niles Avenue and seeing him do it. He metal-detected Melanie Senior’s tulip bed out by the garage, under the grape arbor, along both edges of the drive, in the parkway, under the bushes that surrounded the front porch. He came to the conclusion he was looking for something, the way he was always rummaging around.