Room to welcome everyone

They definitely weren’t suburban. A big pink Victorian house suits Cassia’s colorful extended family in my novel What’s Left. And guests, even guests of guests, are typically welcome.

Have you ever been welcomed in a home like Cassia’s? How does it differ from yours?

~*~

Theirs also had a witch hat, something like the one here.

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.

Also on the plate

Why does the restaurant business sustain so many immigrant families? Just look at all our ethnic options in dining today, even in small cities. Not just Greek-American, like the one in my novel What’s Left.

What’s your favorite food stop? Is it run by a single family? Does it have an ethnic identity?

~*~

Look at all these Greek specialties!

Reasons I still love type on paper

Well, compared to ebooks and all this digital reading.

  1. I can caress it. Yes, even the texture and weight of the paper itself.
  2. Admire the spine on a shelf.
  3. Frame a page and mount it on a wall. (I’m thinking of a broadside, especially.)
  4. There’s marbling in some old editions, and end-papers. Nothing like that in ebooks.
  5. Underline and make notes as I read, enhancing the engagement.
  6. A sense of timelessness. Unlike a computer crash.
  7. Open an old book and there’s a special aroma. Hopefully not mold.
  8. Reading one works better at the beach, in full sunlight.
  9. Easier to find errors when correcting galleys or drafts.
  10. It really does feel finished.

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.

Ways reading an ebook feels different from a paper edition

  1. No pencil or highlighter. You type notes or make marks in a side column instead.
  2. No flipping ahead. You scroll or use the slider at the bottom of the screen.
  3. But it also means you have less of a feel for the size of the text ahead – whether this is going to be a novella or an epic.
  4. You’re less likely to lose your place if the pages slip free of your finger.
  5. Search function for a particular word or phrase. Now this is really useful!
  6. Easier to transport and store. You can have hundreds at hand on your reader, tablet, or laptop, where they add nothing to the weight of the device.
  7. You can discover more unknown writers.
  8. Your hands can be free. You need them only to tap to the next page or keyboard a note. Or, if you’re like me, there’s no pencil in the hand that isn’t holding the book open.
  9. You’re less likely to read it at the beach, I suppose, because of the glare. But I find the ebook easier to read at a table.
  10. It’s cheaper. Ideally, much cheaper.

Working all hours, for starters

Here’s something I’ve pondered in revising my big novel What’s Left:

Does the restaurant business essentially operate at the fringe of normal society? Or do weird characters naturally gravitate toward jobs there?

If you’ve ever worked in a commercial food operation, what’s you most telling impression?

~*~

What a tradition!

With a focus on the family

Cassia’s future father marries into a family that owns a popular restaurant. So that’s one additional connection for the members.

Considering his wife’s sister and three brothers, all with potential partners of their own, he’s not the only spouse thrown into the mix. And that’s before getting to those who want careers elsewhere.

What holds your extended family together? Or are you widely scattered?

~*~

The family also buys an old church, something like this, and turns it into a community center that features wild rock concerts.

The small-press literary scene has had a big influence on me

While still living in the Midwest, I came under the sway of the margins of the literary world more than the more influential institutions and best-selling or most critically acclaimed voices at its core.

In high school, I came across the weekly Village Voice tabloid amid the out-of-town newspapers at Willkie’s downtown and devoured its tales of sides of Manhattan (and the world) the established dailies ignored, mostly of a progressive slant. By college, it was augmented by New York Magazine, which originated under Clay Felkner as the Sunday supplement to the now defunct Herald Tribune; glossy Esquire, with its New Journalism stars; and Evergreen, alive with muckraking politics.

Concurrently, my advanced writing class my sophomore year opened my eyes to the importance of small literary reviews, some with institutional support and others fully independent, most of them published quarterly. Some were student run, others had professional staff; more likely they were a labor of love in the wee hours. Many of them were mimeographed and stapled, before photocopying took over. Now they’re mostly online.

I was already putting out a sporadic mimeo broadside, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, on my commuter college campus, which also had a fine student-run review of its own, Nexus (35 cents!).

My next campus didn’t have such an active literary scene, especially of an experimental sort. As a student majoring in poly sci rather than English, though, I was able to sample some influential courses. Film history, for one, and Russian novels in translation in the Russian department, for another, and finally a current American novels class that examined Ishmael Reed, Tom Wolfe, Robert Coover, Thomas Pyncheon, and Ken Kesey. I was also reading a lot of Vonnegut and Hesse. On my return as a research associate in the mid-’70s, I became involved in a lively off-campus poetry circle led by Richard Pflum, Roger Pfingston, and David Wade, along with their annual Stoney Lonesome. The novelists I most often cite as influences were all active in this period.

My favorite literary periodicals were the Paris Review and Kayak, as well as the book publishers New Directions and Black Sparrow.

And then I got serious about poetry and submitting promiscuously. In all, I’ve had more than a thousand works accepted for publication by editors around the globe. Each acceptance encouraged more work in a particular direction, and sometimes comments on rejections (quite rare, I must say – most are mere forms) provided valuable advice. Some of the correspondence got quite lively. And yes, 20 rejections per submission was par for the course, as I’d been advised in that advanced writing class.

Trying to get a chapbook published, however, was more difficult. My biggest near-miss was with Copper Canyon in Washington state.

These days I can see my blogging as continuing in the small-press arena, especially at my Thistle Finch site, which is offering free PDF editions of my poetry.

Remember, feedback is always welcome for a writer, unless it’s purely caustic. Publishing in a void is the bigger struggle. I’d say the small-press scene is ultimately more personal. One reader can make all the difference.