A few things that are factually untrue in my novels

Naturally, you invent some things when you’re writing a novel, and you bend some others to improve the fit.

But some other elements deliberately stretch reality, hopefully with good reason. Besides, that’s why it’s called fiction.

For example:

  1. There were no elders in my dorm, they just didn’t care. Or in most hippie circles. The ones who tried to be leaders are a whole other disaster.
  2. Swami wasn’t a guy in my experience, but readers couldn’t accept a woman in the role. Besides, I couldn’t nickname her Big Pumpkin, could I?
  3. No boat trips in a commercially open Arkansas cave. Maybe someday?
  4. No place on the Ohio River in Indiana is only an hour away from Naptown. I applied a bit of fantastical geography to better match the feel.
  5. No hitchhiking in any subway system I know of. Subway surfing is another matter.
  6. Kokopelli never left the Southwest, and I doubt he was in trouble the way Coyote would have been.
  7. Goodwin didn’t open up the family purse as liberally when it came to upgrading the paper.
  8. Kenzie’s sex life wasn’t this good. He had only one Summer of Love.
  9. I can’t actually prove or disprove what was going on in the university president’s bedroom.
  10. Small-town newspaper columnists don’t have contracts. Or anyone acting as their agent.

How I finally wrapped up some lively loose ends

The paperback cover …

Once I had gone back to better unify the stories of Cassia, the basis of What’s Left, and her father, I then saw a possibility of pulling two existing and somewhat problematic novellas into an overall more unified volume. (Yes, I’ll argue that what I have is something other than a conventional series, even when some of the characters appear in multiple novels.) And, I should emphasize, Cassia is far from the scene in the pieces I’m addressing, the ones that now involve Jaya, the center of Nearly Canaan, in a capstone work.

By weaving Jaya into the two novellas, I could pull them together. And since “Nearly Canaan” was set in three distinct parts of the country – Great Plains, the South, and Pacific Northwest – reflecting places where she had lived with Schuwa, a third section was required, one reflecting their interlude in the Ozarks.

Here, my imagination took over, along with some elaboration of earlier research. I might add that the Hodgson Mill cornmeal found on many supermarket and kitchen shelves has a personal connection – its founders were distant kin from North Carolina who spelled their name like mine at one stage in their migration to Missouri. I have to admit that “Miller at the Springs” is especially satisfying for me.

Together, the three form The Secret Side of Jaya, plus a little more.

… and the back cover.

I must admit the collection is deeply personal for me and leave it at that. I offer it to you, all the same.

While we’re at it and geography’s on my mind, I should also confess that in “What’s Left” and Daffodil Uprising, when I recast the town of Daffodil by moving it to the Ohio River and throwing in a touch of Dubuque, Iowa, from the Upper Mississippi, I was acknowledging a sense that southern Indiana gravitates toward the big river along its southern border, even though no place along the waterway is only an hour from Indianapolis. Poetic license, then. The Hoosier state was settled largely from the south – in 1850, nearly half of the households had roots in North Carolina, where many Quakers had fled because of the slaveholding culture. And then recasting that Indiana into the Ozarks, I turned heavily toward the use of photos and related documents, somewhat the same way I did in another series about what you don’t know when I tackled my Mediterranean poems.

And I’m somehow surprised that Baltimore, as beloved as it was in my residence later, has never come up in my fiction. And it won’t. The personal drama was mostly banal or I just never got to know the place well enough to go more than skin-deep.

She’s so unlike the author

Maybe it’s a fair question, asking where an author stands in the story. Sometimes it’s pretty autobiographical. With my novel What’s Left, I can safely say I’m nothing like the narrator, Cassia. We don’t even like the same music.

And let’s say her father’s been a much better parent than me. Add to that the fact he’s traveled widely, has mountaineering skills, can translate Tibetan, finds true love not long after college, is able to call one place home the rest of his life. Well, let me add he shares a lot good traits with one very talented photojournalist I worked alongside all too many years ago now.

I will admit a flash of envy seeing the warm guidance he receives in the development of his talent and the freedom he has in pursuing it.

So there’s my disclaimer.

As for Cassia? I’m beginning to think of her as a daughter. She might even fit in with one of my own, though I think there’d be friction with at least one of the others.

~*~

Well, thinking of where we stand in a story, how about this?

What do you see in your baby pictures?

~*~

Who on earth can eat just one “stick” of souvlaki? Besides, where’s the salad or Greek potatoes? Besides, kabobs remind me of winter camp outs as a Boy Scout, cooking in the snow and using green twigs for skewers, long before I’d ever tasted lamb. Oh, my!

 

And you wonder how I work?

When I was employed full-time at the newspaper, I read interviews with successful authors who boasted they actively wrote two hours a day. Yes, boasted! As if two hours was such incredible labor! My reaction was, “What shirkers! What slackers!” And then, during my sabbatical, I typically spent eight to ten hours a day composing, though admittedly I did have a backlog of raw material to work down. And toward the end, I realized I was going at an unsustainable pace.

Besides, my two years on the road calling on newspaper editors for the media syndicate had convinced me that in a typical workday two hours of actually productive time was the optimum you could count on. In my case, it was the time spent in front of editors pitching our new goods and defending the ones they were already buying. The rest of my daily hours were preparation and cleaning up afterward and a host of other things I label as “infrastructure.”

You follow that? You still have to talk to the boss, do your research, keep in touch with colleagues, that sort of thing. And then there are doctor’s appointments and oil changes for the car. Welcome to the real world. It’s not an assembly line. Or maybe what lawyers would call billable time.

At the paper, I might now consider those two hours as actual keyboarding time. The rest would have included phone calls to interview subjects, plus background reading of the clips and even pondering what questions needed to be asked.

When I was employed, my literary world occurred in my off-the-clock hours. Much of it happened like graffiti, even notes jotted down while driving to the office or after. Flashes I might expand later in something that felt like jazz improv.

Two back-to-back Paris Review interviews in the late ’60s added perspective. The first was Jack Kerouac, with his two-week bursts of hammering away uncorrected on long rolls of teletype paper (like the ends I later used from the newsrooms where I worked – it’s the experience we now have on computers, where we don’t have to pause to insert a new sheet of paper page after page). Voila! He had a novel! Let the editors fix it, if they dare. The other was with Nabokov, the Russian émigré, who polished each sentence in English on a large index card his wife would later copy into a typescript.

I suspect no two writers work quite the same. Unlike one friend, who requires a new chair for each new work he tackles, I’ve been in the same one for 25 years or so now. I can’t imagine keyboarding in an aluminum fold-up lawn seat as he once did. Ahem.

Nor am I a Mozart, able to compose effortlessly on a stagecoach or in the middle of a loud party. I need my own Fortress of Solitude, currently in a corner of our attic though a treehouse might also be tempting.

When it comes to writing, my real work comes in the revisions, with all of the reflections and corrections and distillations and insertions. Initially, I found this oppressive. Something like our warmup exercises in choir, actually, though I really miss them when they don’t happen.

As a journalist, my dream was to have been like Hub Meeker at the Dayton Journal Herald with his State of the Arts column, though my own Corinthian Column at the Indiana Daily Student during my senior year of college at the height of the hippie upheaval did come close, only taking the larger counterculture as its vague subject. By the way, whatever happened to the Washington Post’s Nicolas von Hoffman, from that same frothy upheaval? A column, bang it out and you’re done. On to the next.

Poems and novels rarely happen like that. Still, they require daily “butt time,” in Bukowski’s term. That I finally understand and embrace.

As I’ve revised what I considered “experimental” novels, my emphasis has shifted from the events to the characters. Sometimes even the genders have shifted, adding new nuances. Yes, there are scenes that never happened to me personally, not that I would have resisted. They happened to somebody.

More recently, my now-wife has shown me instances in cooking where I bring in a big batch of something from the garden, say a basket of kale or tomatoes, and watch it cook down to almost nothing. A very, very tasty essence.

So you wonder about what writing’s like? Please pass me the pepper grinder, a lemon, and a stick of butter.

Funny, how that points me toward Cassia and her family in What’s Left.

Having at least a critical mass in hand, if not a workable draft, is still progress 

I got out before I was axed, but the next three interludes weren’t so fortunate. All ended with my head and heart served up to me on a plate, in terms of my career, yet somehow I always landed back on my feet.

The least time was when I allowed myself a self-imposed sabbatical in Baltimore in the mid ’80s, one of the smarter moves in my life. Putting those savings into a solid investment would have made much better sense than using them for a year of poverty existence writing, but I hoped if I could get published, my shift over to being an author full-time would be assured. I knew too many others who had put off their big dream till retirement but never been able to manifest it.

The paperback cover …

So I hunkered down over my keyboard, kept to a strict schedule, and amassed the bulk of two major fiction projects that now stand as Daffodil Uprising, Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, Yoga Bootcamp, Nearly Canaan and parts of The Secret Side of Jaya. There were also a few other blueprints that remain undeveloped. (As novels, the two boxes of manuscripts were truly too unwieldy, no matter how vibrant their contents.) “Subway Hitchhikers,” now embedded into Subway Visions, was already in place.

That year wasn’t all work, rest assured. I underwent some crucial personal growth and recovery. There were close friendships and time for reading. Mennonites and Brethren added to my Quaker practice. A writers’ group hosted upcoming Tom Clancy one evening, with his first book then being turned into a movie. I was learning to part-sing a cappella. We walked to Orioles games from one couple’s third-floor quarters.

Alas, my money started running out before I could land an agent or see a volume lined up for publication, and so it was time for me to move on. At least I had those precious drafts in hand – or more accurately, on computer diskettes. Even as raw material, they were full of details I’d never be able to recollect a decade or two later, much less in the distance of retirement. And with that, I was off for New Hampshire and a new life.

What became painfully clear was that newspapers weren’t the only part of the publishing world in serious trouble. So was the book trade. A few hot-shot agents replied that the book I’d pitched them deserved to be published but they couldn’t take on anything new, they were utterly baffled by what was happening as the number of houses handling fiction kept shrinking. Most agents didn’t even return the self-addressed stamped envelopes. (The jerks.) Even so, I kept revising, leading to the publication of “Subway Hitchhikers” as a trade paperback in 1990, followed by the hard reality of being “backlisted” and out-of-print when sales failed to materialize.

… and the back cover.

Still, I was hooked. All along, there was a flood of poetry that found its way into circulation and a few projects that seemed commercially viable, if only I could add the right co-author, one with creds. My years since Baltimore also included book-length new writing, mostly Quaker related, but again, print proved elusive – it is a small market, and the faith as a whole is filled with active writers.

So I was caught in a limbo until the emergence of ebooks, starting with my “Ashram” in 2006 as a PDF from pioneering PulpBits in Vermont and then my Smashwords entries beginning in 2013.

What I now realize how much free time and focus fiction demands. It is, as I’ve learned the hard way, so different from journalism, and not just in the ways I’d be confronting. When I was employed, I could deal with deep revisions of my Baltimore lode during my vacations and holidays, and do the routine polishing of its prose on my free days, but generating entirely new novels was out of the question until retirement, when I turned to creating “What’s Left.”

In short, most of the books of fiction now available under my name are the result of 35 years of labor, more or less. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to push them on to completion.

A breath of new heights

Despite growing up in the flat country of the Midwest, I’ve always been attracted to heights. The top of the tree in our backyard was mine alone. I remember taking the speedy express elevator to the top of the Carew Tower in downtown Cincinnati as a child and looking down on the ant-like people on the streets far below. And mountains have always loomed large in my imagination, later abetted by a few early visits to the Appalachians in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I even backpacked a week on the Appalachian Trail at age 12 as a Boy Scout with my primitive-camping troop.

By the time I returned to Indiana in the mid-’70s, I had also lived in the Allegheny foothills to the west of the Catskills in New York state as well as the Poconos in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d even ventured into New Hampshire to climb Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. I thought I had a familiarity with mountains.

The paperback cover …

My next upheaval sent me west. The drive across the Great Plains and Rockies was a revelation, and the entry into the environs of my new employment came frankly as a shock. Neither my wife nor I was prepared for the arid, open desert where nearly everything, including its famed apple orchards, required irrigation. Forefront in my mind was Swami Lakshmy’s observation from her first visit to India, that every place she visited had its own unique vibration.

And yes, there were mountains, including the barren heights defining our valley as well as the eastern flank of the Cascade Range to our west and glacier-clad Mount Adams looking down on us from 50 miles away.

As I adjusted to the realities, everything was filled with wonder I came to love, as you will see in my novel Nearly Canaan, which started out being more about the distinct landscape than about fully considered characters.

My employment situation, meanwhile, provided its own fodder for what would emerge as Hometown News back in the Rust Belt. I never wanted to leave Pacific Northwest, for sure, but a new publisher at the newspaper made the situation intolerable. As I bailed out, along with the most of the rest of the management team, I entered a difficult period that added much to the newspaper tale, plus a divorce and broken engagement.

It’s always hard to come down from a mountain. A part yearns to hang there forever.

Why didn’t I become an academic?

The second of my three times of stepping out of the news business came when Vincent and Elinor Ostrom invited me to return to Indiana to become the social sciences editor in their new Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Vincent had been a wonderful mentor through my undergrad years, and the opportunity to work with them again was truly exciting. Besides, I was newly married and the move would allow my wife to continue with her college studies. It was a pretty heady undertaking all around.

We settled in at the edge of town, pretty much as I describe in Nearly Canaan. But having Indiana show up so much already in my fiction – Daffodil Uprising and What’s Left, especially – as I revisited this stage in my life, I looked around for a landscape with similar features and people, which I was surprised to find arising in the Ozarks. Now you know. In full candor, I have to admit I’ve never been in Arkansas or that swath of Missouri, even though my mother was born in St. Louis.

Two important things emerged for me personally during this sojourn. First was my shift from yoga to Quaker as my spiritual path. Second was my emergence as a poet, largely through a lively off-campus circle that was surprisingly free of academic influence. As a research associate, I could borrow books from the graduate library for unlimited periods, and so I had a shelf of small-press chapbooks at hand – what a luxury! And my interludes in the renowned Lilly rare-book library remain treasured, where I handled rare editions of Samuel Johnson’s Ramblers (1750-52, including a few coffee stains and pencil marks, presumably from their first readers) and Audubon’s original luxurious prints (all birds presented life-size, as if stunningly pressed into the pages) and fine-arts broadsides of Gary Snyder’s poems from the 1950s onward.

I found the academic life to be much to my liking. I’ve been asked since why I didn’t go on to graduate school and a professorial direction. My answers are muffled, beginning with the personal finance situation and the glut of doctorates already looking for tenure, at least in my fields of interest. I would have chafed at the internal politics, naturally. And then I came across Snyder’s reason for not continuing his own post-graduate degrees (at Indiana, when he made the decision) – he realized he could be a good professor or a good poet, but not both. I would later arrive at something similar when it came to the management track I pursued through the first half of my journalism career, as you’ll see.

Those of us in the Workshop had barely celebrated our getting the second phase of our major grant renewed, meaning I’d be staying in Bloomington another four years, when we were hit with the devasting news that the amount had been drastically slashed during an unanticipated realignment of the federal agency’s priorities. What it meant for me and my wife was packing up and moving on again.

The next opening felt like a ticket to Heaven.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, what do I know? Like I’m an expert on anything?

Through the period of my life right after college, I kept relocating every year-and-a-half to a new job and location. The shock provided more grist for my writing than I would have anticipated, but not the time to digest it.  Each round, I was just getting settled when I was interrupted and uprooted. That set me in four different states over six years at the beginning, followed by three more over the next ten. Altogether, that added up to 11 mailing addresses in seven states before I packed pack up for New England. No matter how adventurous I might find adjusting to the new environments, it was ultimately stressful. There were days I hardly knew where I was waking up. More emotionally difficult has been the way friendships fade over such distances.

As a writer who was also tackling the demands of a new job, I had little time to digest the fresh material, much less revise it, either as poetry or prose, especially if I wanted to dig beneath the surface.

As for my love life?

It’s a wonder I didn’t go loco.

Why I love tracking the hip groove of the underground

The paperback cover …

My subways novel started out to be my big hippie tome, building on a metaphor of hitchhiking, which was ubiquitous for us, but the extended concept ultimately got to be too unwieldy for one book. The supportive details were stripped away for what’s become Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, leaving the metropolis altogether.

Spurred on by Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America” with a dash of William Burroughs, the initial drafts played surrealistically in a tension between the wide-open roads of the countryside and the underground realms of the biggest cities.

Then, four or five years after taking up the project, I was pawing through a used books bin in the desert of Washington state and came across a 1915 engineering volume, “Building Subways in New York,” which included “Elevated Railway Steelworks.” I still have it. How on earth had it ever landed out there amid the sagebrush?

I had already lived in Upstate New York four hours from Manhattan, and nearly all of my friends, housemates, and lovers were from The City. That was followed by my residency in a yoga ashram two hours away in the Poconos, so yes, I had learned to ride the trains. (Nowadays, it’s mostly Boston’s a little over an hour south of me.)

… and the back cover.

The original “Subway Hitchhikers” had a structure that ran like trains passing in opposite directions, which readers could find confusing rather than energizing. It also had a lacy air that reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s pop art “combines.” Gone, too, in the revisions is the protagonist’s hippie handle, substituting a more conventional nickname that better links this story to the others.

In the revised version, Subway Visions, there’s more focus on characters, plus new sections on Kenzie’s encounters of Tibetan Buddhism in a tenement near Greenwich Village as well as a graffiti artist known as T-Rex.

What’s evolved has a much straighter narrative and more arresting development, now linked to Kenzie’s ongoing life in the hills to the north. And elements of fantasy and heightened playfulness now augment the earlier surrealism.

I suspect I still have some classic coin tokens in my possession, somewhere.

Retreat and regrouping led me into poetry and fiction

There was no Nita for me during college or immediately after. Had she existed, my route would have been much less conflicted. Somehow, though, I managed to figure out enough on my own, often through seemingly chance introductions, to survive in an alien milieu.

After college I landed in a place where I knew nobody except a few people from my previous summer as a newspaper copy desk intern. I was a Midwesterner trying to comprehend the East Coast, a hippie working in a low-paid newsroom. Single and lonely.

The locale I create in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks is situated vaguely somewhere north of New York City. It could be in the Berkshires of Massachusetts or in southern Vermont or places like Oneonta or Cortland, New York, perhaps even Utica.

The paperback cover …

I paint it as smaller than Binghamton, the strange place where I was living and working. The Tri-Cities, as it was referred to locally, was flailing to recover from collapsing industry, especially its shoe-manufacturing ruins, as well as a deteriorating but expensive housing supply. The new state university attracted socially awkward straight-A geeks and nerds. My first year I resided in a neighborhood that was Italian by day and Black, as in ghetto, by night. And then there was the summer and autumn on the farm we shared up in the hills. My work schedule was crazy like Kenzie’s, except for the three-day weekend once a month, which I really wish had been in place – I took that from a newspaper where I worked a dozen years later.

Strangely, I also soon came to love the region. There’s something distinctive about Upstate New York, with its hills and forests and lakes, and almost all of my friends were from The City, meaning the Big Apple aka Gotham. Few of them confined their definition to Manhattan, I should note. Through them I got to know Brooklyn, the Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, and northern suburbs as much as the sliver between the Hudson and East rivers.

I initially addressed this fertile period in my life as two parallel novels – one where the hippie boy largely fails to connect with free love; the other, X rated, where his fantasies come to fruition. Either way, the plots arrived at the same finale. Later, in light of Cassia’s perspectives in What’s Left as well as a few of the early reviews, I returned to these two versions and blended them into a much more cohesive, and I hope more engaging tale, “Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.” Well, that is one of the advantages of ebook editions – you can always update them.

There’s still so much that baffles me about the time and place. How one housemate would come home with a different lover each night, all of them gorgeous to my famished gaze. What was his trick, other than that twinkle in his eye?

In the revised rendering, Kenzie encounters a sequence of hippie chicks, goddesses, lovers, each of them leading him to fresh understandings. Still, I’m left wondering how each of these interludes would sound from the woman’s point of view. I suspect Kenzie wouldn’t fare so well.

Also, for me, it was yoga rather than Buddhism as a new spiritual practice, but that’s told in Yoga Bootcamp.

More lingering are the questions of what’s happened to so many I’ve met in the broader Bohemian spectrum. I can’t even remember many of their names, but I have learned that some went on to become OBGYN physicians, United Way executives, federal attorneys, United Nations officials, photocopier technicians. Hardly what you’d expect of hippies, right?

Well, I’ve tried to record and reflect on what happened, seen mostly on the run. Can you experience something – live it – and still step back enough to record it? In my novels, that’s what the photographer tries to do, similar in its own way to my own struggle. And now you can see how much that role’s changed, too, in the shift from film and darkrooms to the digital ease of today.