I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous. But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive. On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.
The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state. I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood. There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long. The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now). I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there. The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case. When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.
Montana had worked its magic on me.
This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively. The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too: we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt. A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it. And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer. I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.
Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming. Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up. Lee, you’re a gem.
Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest. And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.
Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured. Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak. We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place. A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old. Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.
“Come on downstairs.” We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear. John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.
Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years. We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat. I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you. Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction. And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it. After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”
I think I might have stopped breathing. Of course I had. I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…” Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”
I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar. What a lost opportunity. Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”
Well. There it is.
Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes. Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted. Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit. Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it. “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor. “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply. There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons. While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—
And there he was. James Crumley. Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness. To me, Crumley is the man. For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen. He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well. Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking. Ah, Jim…
I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture. Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait. To your good soul…
Met any number of terrific people in our travels. We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell. I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures. Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.
Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent. They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business. People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington. They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors. I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.
Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back. I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan. The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive. I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.
Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant. These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades. Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them. Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit. Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody. Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter. Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?
Never in hell. I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid. A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.
This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.
“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”
“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”
“Only the chapter I had to.”
“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”
“That was half decent.”
“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”
And so on. Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.
What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store? Waiting for the rain to subside? I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?
* * * * *
I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles. It’s getting scary. We’re running out of space. Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand. I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles? How much can she get for all these fucking books?
And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans. If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.
Or perhaps not. It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore. I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch. Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…
Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that, well, nuts?
It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.
I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder. When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.
Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that. The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess. That’s it.
Pitiful, ain’t it?
But, of course, it isn’t just books. I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it. I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending. Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.
No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control. Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals. Thanks, kids!
We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling. The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down? That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational. It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity. The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.
I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old. Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days. I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist. Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.
I’ve been a reader all my life. Forty years with my nose in books. Books have always offered me comfort and consolation. In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality. As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today. I would be one of them: mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.
All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.
A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage. Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.
New and old enthusiasms: Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice. It goes on and on…
When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)? How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words? Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?
Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.
How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years? Two hundred? Three hundred? The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…
I’m a sick man. Addicted to the printed word. Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically. Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy. How could I have missed them? Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.
The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.
Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there. Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant. A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.
Photos by Sherron Burns
What? More free reading for you? Why not? It’s summertime, kick back, take it easy. And here’s a mind-blowing little gem, a short story from my Reality Machine collection that I think, in all honesty, is one of the ten best I’ve ever written.
“New World Man” owes its origins to some time I spent with…I guess you’d call him a street kid. I met him at a record store/head shop after we moved back to Saskatchewan (from Baffin Island) in the mid-90’s. Hung out with “Kyle” (not his name), met his extended family, seven or eight young people sharing a grotty one-room apartment, sleeping bags spread out on the floor like nests, music constantly playing. Kyle was a Rancid freak and tried to convert me–didn’t take, pal, sorry. He introduced me to someone who morphed into the “Marvin” character and gave me a peek at a sub-culture, a way of viewing the world that was invaluable to the writing of the story.
But “New World Man” also reflects my growing misgivings as I watch the increasing prevalence and attraction of video games; we’re on the cusp of functional virtual reality, full immersion in an invented, interactive environment. What will that do to relationships, the role of family and friends, regular social intercourse with strangers on the street, at the market? More on this subject in a future post…
A German editor selected “New World Man” for an anthology of the 20 All Time Best Science Fiction Stories (Goldmann Publishing); he told me with some glee that my tale bumped one by Ike Asimov from the book. My name even made the cover, along with Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Wow. The story also appeared, I should add, in the Canadian science fiction magazine On Spec.
If you really love this tale, you’ll find it in my book The Reality Machine, which is available through my virtual “Book Store” (above)–you can also pick it up from Mark Ziesing Books, Amazon, abebooks.com, etc. Originally published in 1997, it contains some of my favorite short pieces, including “Also Starring”, “While You Were Away” and “RSVP”.
Now get reading:
Click here for a free download of my short story “NewWorldMan“
My wife and sons are on the West Coast–getting their first dose of rain after a week of great weather–and I’ve stopped answering the phone, shaving, checking e-mails and visiting some of my favorite sites and forums. It’s summertime and that means WORK.
It must be a hormonal thing. While everyone else is seized by an impulse to drag their sorry asses off to the woods and get closer to nature (i.e. Lyme disease, poison oak and bears), I become almost feverish with a desire to be shut away in a 10 X 12 room, scribbling like a madman all day and long into the night. And then, when I finish, I collapse in front of our big Sony and watch old movies or foreign flicks until I zonk out.
And, indeed, that’s what I’ve been up to since I’ve bid farewell and adieu to Sher and the lads last Sunday. I got warmed up with lots of “automatic writing”, filling page after page of my notebook with cryptic, allusive remarks cribbed from my subconscious. Lots of journaling and personal writing too; I use these opportunities when I’m alone to blow off emotional steam, purge my system of some of the accumulated ugliness and toxic sludge. Restoring balance and focus, checking the state of my faith life.
In the past four or five days I’ve really gotten down to business, completing three short stories and tapping them in–over 10,000 words of new prose. But that’s just a warm-up. In the coming weeks I want to tackle a big revision of another novel, really sink my teeth into that one and shake the living shit out of it.
Unfortunately, all that work means I might not be posting here as frequently or at any length. But I promise you there will be new work added soon, more prose you won’t find anywhere else. Because the point of this site isn’t to provide me with a platform for my various rants and obsessions (though sometimes it might appear that way). It’s to give you access to my work, the stories and novels and prose poems and verse and radio plays and essays that I’ve composed over the past quarter century. It’s all here–well, a good portion of it, anyway. Available for absolutely nothing. Posted (see the various “Pages” above) in the PDF format, which (I’m told) makes it compatible with most of those new-fangled e-readers (even the Kindles, I and II). So download away!
And please pop back in again soon. I’ll make sure you have some decent summer reading, never fear. Something for your leisure hours.
Leisure…leisure…have to look that one up in the dictionary some time. Exotic sounding word.
Meanwhile, it’s back to work for yours truly.
Sigh. The sacrifices I make for my hordes of readers…