Abject apologies for being such an inconstant correspondent. It’s the holiday season, after all, and between celebrating Christmas, visiting relatives, supping and socializing with friends, there’s been rather a lot on my plate.
My preparations for the new year took up two entire days—I have this annual ritual, y’see, cleaning my office from top to bottom, rearranging things, paring it down, etc. etc. I also take time to outline my anticipated schedule for the coming year and draw up a list of resolutions.
With regards to the former, well, schedules are made to be broken. I thought I had 2011 figured out…until a western novel called The Last Hunt announced itself in February and proceeded to hijack the entire year. To be clear: as I wrote out my preview for 2011 on or around December 31, 2010, I had no idea that in the very near future I’d be taking a crack at a western. My Muse can be quite perverse. Don’t get me wrong, I love westerns but I’ve never envisioned writing one. Never even fantasized about it. “Wouldn’t it be cool…” Nope.
As for my resolutions, I generally do try. Most of them I’ll keep to myself but one thing I’d dearly love to work on is enjoying myself more, having more fun with the entire process of writing. Does it always have to be so freakin’ stressful and fraught? Is there a way of easing up without damaging the power and integrity of my work?
Last year I made the pledge to read more, took on the “100 Book Challenge” and managed to make it (105 was my final tally, thank you very much). In 2012, I want to keep up that momentum but this year I was to concentrate on BIG books, fat, smart books crammed with great writing and daunting ideas and notions. I’ve already put a few aside: William Vollmann’s Europe Central, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, The History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCullough and Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote. Also want to re-read some of my fave Thomas Pynchon books: it’s been a long time and they’re bound to have fresh revelations for me.
Listening to a lot of music in early 2012, tunes by the likes of Brian Jonestown Massacre and A Place to Bury Strangers. Not much in terms of movies so far, though I’m thrilled to announce we’ve already bought our tickets for this year’s “Silence is Golden” event. The 1924 version of “Thief of Baghdad”, projected onto a big screen, accompanied by a live orchestra. The cinephile within is swooning…
Sherron, bless her heart, bought me another book case on December 30th so for the next two or three days I moved books around, expanding my Film and History/War shelves, organizing and pondering. It was fantastic. I know, it’s ludicrous, isn’t it? I am such a nerd. But in the Information Era, where computers and gadgets entice us with their tricks and shiny buttons, it’s nice to reconnect with my library. I’ve spent my entire adult life assembling a pretty decent collection of tomes and I love having them available, on display, rather than stored in our ancient stone basement, vulnerable to all of the environmental hazards to which paper is prone.
Software comes and goes but my books remain—faithful, accessible, relics of other, less hectic, times. I have all the novels and short stories Philip K. Dick published during his lifetime. I possess every golden word the great James Crumley committed to paper. The covers a bit tattered, the spines showing wear and tear. A substantial proportion of my books are used, remaindered; cast-offs and rejects. But they occupy places of honor on my shelves. Most of the authors dead, many of them all but forgotten. Preserved in my odd collection, my assorted odds and ends and incunabula. All of it reflecting the weird, far-ranging tastes and interests in its curator. Eclectic, if you’re being kind, though a true adept might discern much, much more…
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.
That’s a picture of my latest acquisition, a leather attache case. Been looking for something similar for ages but the models I like are usually wayyyy out of my price range and the ones I can afford are uglier than Dan Brown’s prose or, for various reasons, just not me.
Found this beauty at a thrift shop (secondhand goods) in Saskatoon. Spotted it and let out a crow of pleasure which was slightly mitigated when I discovered that the case sported a hideous logo from some hog producers convention. Well, shit, I’m supposed to be creative, aren’t I, I figured I could come up with some method of fixing the problem. Bought the briefcase for five bucks, brought it home and immediately set to work. Taped off the edges and used black spray paint to get rid of the logo. Still left with a shiny area that had to be covered up with…something. But what? How about a patch or sticker of some kind? Which led to me going ’round and ’round, trying to think of a symbol or design that distinguished the case as mine.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading on anarchy lately, its history and proponents, and have increasingly come to see that for an independent-minded, stubborn, recalcitrant asshole like me, anarchism is the perfect philosophical system. No bosses, no hierarchy, no cant. Found a place in England that sold a sticker that was just about the perfect size to do the job and while I was scrolling through their catalogue, came across the “Kill Your Television” decal.
I hardly ever watch television, except for the news and hockey on Saturday night. We have a grand total of two channels in our house, and one of them doesn’t come in very well. No cable, no satellite, no need. That old Springsteen song comes to mind: 57 channels and nothin’ on. During those rare occasions when we stay in a hotel, I always have a quick troll through the available stations and rarely find anything worth watching, except if I’m lucky to catch an episode of “South Park” or, thanks to a tip from my sons, one of the weird send-ups featured on “Robot Chicken“.
Whenever I go into one of my tirades about television and other time-wasters, I usually get some sort of feeble response like, “well, I only watch television to relax”. A sentiment that is lost on me.
Relaxation? What’s that?
I checked my daybook last week and out of the last 365 days, I’ve taken a grant total of nine days off from writing. Nine days. And that includes weekends, holidays, everything.
And so, I suppose, I have no one but myself to blame for my recent big crash, a eight-day bout with pleurisy (lung inflammation) that knocked me on my ass. My body was simply worn out, my immune system utterly fucked. Couldn’t work, found myself stuck on the couch with a pile of James Crumley books and a stack of movies. I might have tried to work…except I read up on the condition (curse the internet!) and discovered that in severe cases, doctors have to stick a long needle in your lung to siphon off the fluid. Oops. And then I read about some of the famous people, including Thomas Hardy, who have croaked from pleurisy.
Where’s that couch? Rest, rest, must have rest!
I know writing will eventually kill me but not yet. My sons are still only teenagers and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me before I turn up my toes and start taking harp lessons. When the time comes, I intend to go out like David Gemmell, who was discovered by his wife, sprawled across his keyboard, dead of a heart attack. That’s an author’s death.
Real writers don’t need an idiotic event like National Novel Writing Month to get them kick-started. Every year when November rolls around I cringe because I know a horde of amateur fuckwits will be filling forums with progress reports on their masterpieces, playing at being authors. Romance writers and fantasy wannabes, hobbyists who do great disservice to those of us who pay the price day after day, year after year, as we go about honing our craft. Do these fucking morons have any idea the kind of sacrifice and pain the writing life demands from its practitioners? Do they really believe their pathetic, semi-literate efforts are deserving of any kind of respect or approbation?
And listen to them scream in outrage if one presumes to set them straight: how dare a professional writer tell them that their efforts aren’t taken seriously and mock them for their silliness. Lemme tell you something, kiddies: someone who unclogs a toilet isn’t a plumber, someone who screws in a light bulb isn’t an electrician…and someone who scribbles a few thousand words into a notebook with a flowery pattern on the front ain’t an author. Sorry to prick your balloon.
I’ve been writing for nearly 25 years and each day the process of sitting at my desk and commencing work requires discipline and courage, consuming enormous amounts of physical, mental and spiritual energy. The other day, I received a note from one of my favorite authors, Nicholas Christopher (Veronica, A Trip to the Stars, The Bestiary). He wrote:
I am working my through the first 100 pages of a new novel…and finding, as always, that writing of any kind, but especially the writing of novels, is a humbling profession. You start all over again and realize it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many books you’ve written — nor should it get easier, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to and trying to reach new places with your work.
This from a man who has more talent in his big toe than I’ll ever possess, even if I lived to be three hundred.
NaNoWriMo is a gimmick, a fallacy and a fraud. Those who play that game are beneath the contempt of the authors they’re trying so hard to imitate. For thirty days they get to pretend to have the drive, talent and passion of their betters.
Then reality intrudes. Writing, it turns out, is hard work, doncha know? Shucks, you even have to know how to spell .
For many participants of NaNoWriMo, even that is too much of a reach…
Initially, I read to escape.
Found my way to the neverlands and never-will-bes as part of a protracted and determined effort to seek refuge from a real world in which I was vulnerable, helpless.
Books also helped assuage the loneliness, the sense of otherness that frequently assailed me. I’ve always had an earnestly held desire to isolate myself from an indifferent, possibly hostile universe lurking just outside my front door. It’s a type of agoraphobia, I suppose, a reluctance to leave an environment where I wield power and control and venture out into the Chaosium.
Ray Bradbury was an early companion, The Golden Apples of the Sun an important reading experience when I was ten or eleven. So was Arthur C. Clarke’s tale “A Walk in the Dark”. I went through many anthologies and short story collections (I have a love of short fiction that persists to this day). Candidly, I was an indiscriminate reader. Popular fiction, history and, when I was particularly desperate, books plucked from my grandmother’s shelves: Daphne DuMaurier, Harlequin Romances, just about every offering in the Companion Library Series (I was bored by Hans Brinker but loved Baum’s Wizard of Oz and also, surprisingly, The Five Little Peppers).
Science fiction dominated my young adulthood: Lucifer’s Hammer (Niven & Pournelle), Childhood’s End (Clarke), Voyage of the Space Beagle (van Vogt) and every story by Robert Sheckley I could lay my hands on. Sheckley was a fortuitous discovery—I can reread his fiction today and still enjoy it. There’s something about the combination of SF and satire that definitely appeals to me. Some of Sheckley’s best stuff is in Citizen in Space, a volume that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Check it out.
By my mid-teens I was writing a fair bit (mainly bad poetry) and seeking out literary role models, authors whose sensibilities came closest to my own. I found I liked tales with a Twilight Zone-ish aspect to them, something not quite right with the world, fate lying in wait for our hapless hero just around the next bend. Enter Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Jerome Bixby. They became big influences–I think it could be fairly said that their grim(m) worldviews and melancholy ambience still inform the work I produce today, twenty-five years later. That’s how strong an impact their books and tales had on me.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d given up on poetry and was turning my hand to short stories. Slowly, incrementally, I got better and that’s entirely due to the excellent tutelage of my literary heroes. I’ve never taken a writing class or workshop; my “education” is entirely the product of a lifelong addiction to the printed word. I’ve evolved into a better, more critical reader by seeking out authors and books that challenge me intellectually and aesthetically. In the process, I’ve also become a better writer, more demanding when it comes to evaluating and critiquing my own work.
My literary tastes are constantly progressing, expanding. For a time I was enamored with the surrealists and then Samuel Beckett, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, authors and movements bent on distorting or eliminating traditional narrative. I was also drawn to the intricate, cerebral mazes constructed by Jorge Luis Borges.
Over the past decade or so, other writers have instructed me, helped propel my work in interesting new directions: Paul Auster and Jonathan Carroll (his first novel, Land of Laughs is a magnificent effort). Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. James Crumley. Robert Stone. Jack O’Connell. Irvine Welsh.
Each passed along important lessons—I luxuriate in prose by good authors, immerse myself in it, dissect and analyze it to discover how a certain effect was achieved. My hyper-critical mind has little time for those who resort to “hackdom”, it recoils from the discordant, tuneless prose produced by such derivative or porous imaginations.
Lately, my reading has ranged all over the place—one day, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, the next something lean and mean by Charles Willeford. Nonfiction in the morning to get my brain moving, fiction to wind me down at night. I may go two weeks without reading a book, then binge on them, blasting through six in the next six days. For the longest time I didn’t read science fiction; now, thanks to authors like Tony Daniel, John Barnes, Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Vernor Vinge, James Morrow, Iain M. Banks, Paul Di Filippo, Dennis Danvers and others, I’m back in the fold.
Can’t say the same for horror, unfortunately. The field is in a dreadful state. Do most of the guys and gals scribbling zombie stories these days even know who Matheson and Beaumont are? Do they understand that a well-told tale is a beautiful and enduring thing? Doubtful. They’re too busy ministering to their printers. All that blood and viscera keeps clogging up the works. Such “writers” have nothing to teach me.
Right now I’m really attracted to condensed narratives, brief and fierce and tight. Many books these days are afflicted by clutter and bloat…so I seek out authors who have pared down their prose to the bare minimum. Providing descriptions and back stories with a few well-chosen words. Those fat tomes by Proust, Tolstoy and Durrell will have to wait for another time.
I think it’s important for an indie writer these days to be aware of the DIYers and mavericks who preceded them. Independent spirits like Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Poe, Lovecraft, Kafka, Celine, Artaud, Dick and Ellison. Non-conformists and originals, determined to protect the integrity of their work, willing to risk rancor, exile, public indifference or disapprobation. While our themes and objectives may differ, the examples they set as individuals of great fortitude and perseverance have served to inspire me when I’ve questioned my talent, the direction my life and/or career is going in.
Each of the authors I just cited suffered mightily for their art, endured great privation and ignominy…but their books and stories are still read today. Their travails have been vindicated by slow posterity, their creations consigned to the ages. Art that ennobles the human experience, that faithfully reproduces the pleasures and pains of existence and depicts without flinching the true state of the soul will prevail over yesterday’s bestseller, today’s flavour-of-the-moment. Count on it.
We will always have cause to empathize with Lear’s rage and despair and have it within us to hate with the virulent malice of the Count of Monte Cristo. A thousand years from now the persecution of Jean Valjean will still move us to tears (virtual or otherwise). As a species, we’ve been imbued with the capacity to love and the capability to do enormous harm. Great art does not allow us to shrink from such notions nor concede responsibility to outside agencies. It is a mirror, the ultimate reflecting surface; it does not lie and when we balk, commands us not to look away.
Cliff’s Reading List:
A few years ago my nephew Jesse asked me to put together a reading list for him—this is a revised and updated version of that roster of faves. Books I commend without reservation for their intelligence, savagery, grace and wit:
Martin Amis DEAD BABIES (vicious/hilarious)
Paul Auster ORACLE NIGHT; THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS (magic realism)
J.G. Ballard RUNNING WILD (chilling short novel)
Wilton Barnhardt GOSPEL (brilliant!)
James Carlos Blake IN THE ROGUE BLOOD (terrific western)
Joseph Boyden THREE DAY ROAD (Sherron & I loved this book)
Anthony Burgess EARTHLY POWERS
Benjamin Cavell RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE (brilliant, edgy stories)
L.F. Celine JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT; DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN
Michael Chabon AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY; YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION
Nicholas Christopher VERONICA; A TRIP TO THE STARS
James Crumley: (anything by this author)
Don DeLillo UNDERWORLD
Philip K. Dick A SCANNER DARKLY
Katherine Dunn GEEK LOVE (shocking, bizarre…one of our faves)
Steve Erickson DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS (surreal, well-written)
Timothy Findley NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE (brilliant)
Ken Grimwood REPLAY (suppose you had your whole life to live over?)
Jim Harrison TRUE NORTH (great American novelist)
Ernest Hemingway FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (his best book)
Nick Hornby HIGH FIDELITY (avoid Americanized movie)
John Irving HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE (still his best)
Denis Johnson JESUS’S SON (grim, powerful stories)
William Kotzwinkle THE FAN MAN (another big favorite)
Ira Levin A KISS BEFORE DYING (very suspenseful; terrible movie)
Lee Maynard CRUM
Cormac McCarthy BLOOD MERIDIAN; OUTER DARK
Ian McEwan BLACK DOGS; CEMENT GARDEN
Martin Millar LUX THE POET
Henry Miller TROPIC OF CANCER; BIG SUR & THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH
David Mitchell CLOUD ATLAS; BLACK SWAN GREEN
Seth Morgan HOME BOY (staggeringly good; author died tragically young)
James Morrow TOWING JEHOVAH (blasphemous; hilarious)
Chuck Palahniuk LULLABY; CHOKE; FIGHT CLUB
Stephen Pressfield GATES OF FIRE
Mordecai Richler COCKSURE (very funny); BARNEY’S VERSION (what a swan song)
Tom Robbins ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION; STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER
Bruce Robinson THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN
Abraham Rodriguez SPIDERTOWN (amazing novel); THE BUDDHA BOOK
J.D. Salinger THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (legendary)
George Saunders (anything by Saunders; he’s one of the best)
Jim Shepard PROJECT X (he’s a great short story writer too)
Robert Stone OUTERBRIDGE REACH; DAMASCUS GATE
Donna Tartt THE SECRET HISTORY (excellent first novel)
Hunter S. Thompson FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (changed my life)
John Kennedy Toole CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Guy Vanderhaeghe MY PRESENT AGE (very funny & sweet)
Rich Wallace WRESTLING STURBRIDGE (great YA novel)
Evelyn Waugh DECLINE & FALL
Colson Whitehead THE INTUITIONIST
Karen Armstrong A HISTORY OF GOD
Thomas Cahill DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS
Wade Davis ONE RIVER (travels in Amazonia & elsewhere)
Annie Dillard HOLY THE FIRM
Richard Ellmann JAMES JOYCE (biography); OSCAR WILDE (biography)
Jon Krakauer INTO THIN AIR
Bill McKibben ENOUGH (too much technology is gonna kill us)
Margaret McMillan 1919 (story behind Versailles negotiations)
Graham Robb RIMBAUD (biography)
Eric Schlosser FAST FOOD NATION; REEFER MADNESS
Andrew Smith MOON DUST
Anthony Storr SOLITUDE
Barbara Tuchman MARCH OF FOLLY
Elie Wiesel NIGHT