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The Alienation of Holden Caulfield

June 22, 2009 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Commentary

Alpine Road 

 

Catcher In the Rye. A book that is a required read in many school curricula. Recently, an article by Jennifer Schuessler titled, “Get a Life, Holden Caulfield” appeared in the The New York Times.

After reading it, I was left with a few questions and thoughts.

Holden no longer the “paradigmatic teenager”

The premise of the article is that Salinger’s Holden Caulfield “may be losing his grip on the kids.” Apparently, today’s youth are not connecting to Holden in a way that justifies keeping Salinger’s book on the required reading list.

Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as “weird”, “whiny”, and “immature.”

As our society increases its pace through the generations, is the result a more jaded youth?

(more…)

Sunday Salon: Crossing The Line

May 30, 2009 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Articles

 Censorship by Eric Drooker

Above Graphic is called Censorship and is by Eric Drooker

Saturday, I came across this while going through my reader. (Thank you Christina over at Reading Through The Night). It is an article on WIRED about a landmark case. They didn’t actually call it that, but I have no qualms in doing so.

Anyone who has followed me on this blog for any length of time knows that banning and challenging books and art are issues I take seriously. And that includes using the claim of “obscenity” in order to justify said challenges.

I know the subject matter of the comics in question is unconscionable to many people. He freely admits to being in possession of manga depicting subject matter unacceptable in American society. (Apparently in Asia where these works originate, they are widespread and legal).

But this is not the whole story.

One has to take into account other circumstances such as no actual photographs depicting realistic scenarios was found, and the artwork confiscated was part of an overall collection of non-offensive works. He is an avid collector of all things manga so he did not censor his selections or purchases. A choice he made willingly. A choice he will pay for in prison.

I am left to wonder will the line be drawn here? Or are we looking at facing the potentiality of other artwork, comics, or graphic novels being questioned and their collectors facing lengthy prison terms such as Mr. Handley.

Consider this article by Jennifer Vineyard: Neil Gaiman On The ‘Obscenity’ Of Manga Collector Christopher Handley’s Trial in which he is quoted as saying:

“I wrote a story about a serial killer who kidnaps and rapes children, and then murders them,” Gaiman said, referring to a storyline in “The Doll’s House.” “We did that as a comic, not for the purposes of titillation or anything like that, but if you bought that comic, you could be arrested for it? That’s just deeply wrong. Nobody was hurt. The only thing that was hurt were ideas.”

“They found his manga, and found some objectionable panels,” Gaiman said. “He’s been arrested for having some drawings of rude things in manga. I’m sorry, but if you went through my comic collection, you could arrest me if you’re going to start doing that. It’s just wrong.”

Mr. Gaiman also addressed this issue with this post:Why defend freedom of icky speech?

What is obscene? At what point does it “cross the line” and become an act punishable by serving up to 15 years in prison? Does it stop here, or should I be concerned over my own growing collection of challenged material such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The House of the Spirits, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

I know that according to previous court decisions, I am in no danger due to the above because no “…reasonable person would find that the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” That is along as the community and society in which I live continues to find literary merit in what I read.

The following is excerpted a term paper I wrote while in college. I do like to keep my postings brief. However, this seems applicable to how I am feeling, especially after reading the article, and getting a sense that there are deeper implications than some may perceive at the outset. It was written about counterculture artists, yet I feel what is conveyed applies to all artists, writers, and poets.

If you don’t read the entire paper, at least scroll to the bottom and read the last paragraph. To this day, I think it is one of the best things I have ever written, and just as appropriate today as when I wrote it all those years ago.

Crossing the Line

Within the timeline of counterculture history, one recurring thread becomes apparent. Societies disdain for any person or group that refused to conform to societal norms manifested itself over and again in arrests, trials, and convictions of those who refused to abide by any law that repressed their ability to create. Throughout history this antipathy expressed itself upon all forms of art whether it was literary, musical, on canvas, or in sculpture. All counterculture artists push outward against the boundaries of conformity, and at times suffer for it. But some have not suffered quietly. They were the pioneers that made the way easier for others.

From the bohemians of the nineteenth century to the urban music of today, the envelope of socially acceptable art has been pushed, and at times laid open, by those artists who believe their art is “the affirmation of the individual’s power to create his own life rather than accepting the dictates of surrounding social authorities and conventions, be they mainstream or subcultural.” (Goffman 28) This belief inherently puts the artist in direct conflict with authority. As Goffman noted, “It’s not surprising, then, that countercultures are usually subjected to some level of prosecution. Breaking taboos, violating norms, challenging sacrosanct ideas: the anti-authoritarian spirit inherent in counterculture potentially threatens any established order.” (28) The main problem has always been the definition of what is obscene. According to Huston, “Obscenity laws define ‘victimless crimes’, which are based on preferences and not rights…the application of obscenity laws will always be arbitrary and discriminatory.” (75)

One of the first cases to help redefine the application of obscenity laws to literature was the case of United States v. One Book Entitled “Ulysses.” In 1918, two editors in New York were convicted and fined for printing excerpts of James Joyce’s Ulysses in their magazine The Literary Review. For this reason, no American or British publisher would consider handling the book. Only one, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, would help Joyce bring his work to the public. The novel remained banned in the United States until the publisher, Random House, attempted to have the ban lifted in 1933 by deliberately smuggling in a copy of the book and ensuring its discovery and confiscation.

The trial and subsequent decision affected how courts determined a work obscene. In essence, could an entire work be considered pornographic when only select paragraphs were perceived as offensive? Judge John Woolsey ruled that it did not. Woolsey was impressed with the sincerity of Joyce’s commitment to his stream of consciousness style. As noted by a news article at the time, “Federal Judge John M. Woolsey, after devoting almost a month of his time to reading the book, ruled in an opinion which he filed in court that "Ulysses" not only was not obscene in a legal sense, but that it was a work of literary merit.” (“Court Lifts Ban”)

Within ten minutes of the decision, Random House began typesetting the book and several years later, the ban was lifted in Britain. Many would note that his work is at best difficult to read, but none would deny that the publicity surrounding Ulysses did more for the number of books sold than the author work itself. As Goffman noted, “he was one of the first innovative twentieth-century artists to realize…that scandal is good for your career.” In general this proved to be true for most artists. However for one comic attempting to push societal boundaries in the sixties, the notoriety and scandal would prove to be fatal.

The fifties saw the emergence of the Cold War and widespread fear as “self-appointed groups were purging libraries, harassing teachers…for a time, it seemed as if traditional individual freedom, decency, and common sense were…sacrificed.” (Sellers, May, and McMillan 354) Luckily these fears were short lived; however it appeared to lead toward a growing disillusionment with authority and an awareness of the hypocrisy of the previous generation. Toward the end of the decade, many were praising the economic upturn while ignoring the distance growing exponentially between the wealthy and the poor, suburbia and the city. This disparity would have its consequences. Alienation from the mainstream had been growing since the end of World War II, and it was urging on group of socially minded individuals to action. Lawrence Ferlinghetti explained it best when he wrote, “It was a time of born-again optimism, but there were also new elements in the smelting pot of postwar America. There was a sense of great restlessness, a sense of wanting more of life…a vision of some new side open, more creative society.” (Ferlinghetti xi)

This vision led Ferlinghetti, and others, to San Francisco in the fifties. As he noted later, “The Beat poets…furthered the postwar cultural synthesis, and “Howl” became the catalyst in a paradigm shift in American poetry and consciousness…forecasting the main obsessions and ecstasies of liberation…against all that our postwar society was doing to us.” In was in this spirit that Allen Ginsberg stepped up to the microphone in the Six Gallery and began to read his poem. William Carlos Williams, in his introduction to the book Howl and other Poems, described his friend Ginsberg: “Literally he has, from all evidence, been through hell. On the way he met a man named Carl Solomon with whom he shared among the teeth and excrement of this life something that cannot be described but in the words he has used to describe it.” (Morgan and Peters 19)

The following year, City Lights Books owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti published “Howl” in his Pocket Poet series. Due to restrictions in the United States, the book was printed in England. Initially the books had no problem passing through customs. However, a second printing was seized and held. The City District Attorney did not feel that there was enough of a case to prosecute, so the books were released to Ferlinghetti. However, the juvenile division of the San Francisco Police Department felt otherwise. They arrested the shop manager and put out a warrant for the arrest of Ferlinghetti. Their trial in the summer of 1957 would prove critical to the history of both American poetry, and American censorship.

Many were in strong support of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, including the American Civil Liberties Union and one of its lawyers, Albert Bendich. In defense of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti himself argued that “Ginsberg wasn’t obscene…he was merely an artist expressing a point of view contrary to the prevailing philosophy of the times.” (Torgoff 64) After a long trial, the judge in the case, Clayton Horn, ruled in favor of the book. His decision stated that so long as the work had in any way content that was of redeeming social value, it is not obscene. Judge Horn found, “Ferlinghetti not guilty of publishing and selling obscene writings, on the grounds that Howl and other Poems was not written with lewd intent and was not without ‘redeeming social importance.’” (Morgan and Peters 3)

In preparation for this decision, Judge Horn not only familiarized himself with Ginsberg’s work, he had read Ulysses as well as Judge Woolsey’s decision and, as with Joyce’s Ulysses, the judge offered more than a simple decision. In his ruling, he wrote, “The author of Howl has used those words because he believed that his portrayal required them as being in character…Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be…allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.” (Morgan and Peters 198)

In a twist of fate, Judge Clayton Horn will also oversee another obscenity case and rule in the favor of the accused. However, this favorable decision was one of very few positive outcomes that Lenny Bruce experienced in a courtroom. In addition to the same judge, Lenny was also lucky to have the same lawyer who represented Ferlinghetti. Albert Bendich knew the judge, and his predisposition toward protecting First Amendment rights. Lenny was acquitted and felt confident to go on with his career, and his style of satirical comedy. However, the jury felt differently and it was an omen that Lenny did not heed. On the final instructions to the jury before deliberating, Judge Horn instructed them on which points they must use in order to determine if Lenny’s act was obscene, “in essence, there were the same free speech points Horn had made in his People v. Ferlinghetti opinion.” (Collins and Skover 76) If not so instructed by the Judge, the jury would have convicted him. According to Collins and Skover, “Lenny Bruce’s freedom hinged on the fact that, in the name of the First Amendment, the members of the jury tolerated what offended them.” (77) This tolerance would rarely be repeated in future cases against the comic.

In every sense, Lenny was his own worst enemy. Lenny wanted control; control of his life, his words, and his defense against the law that he fought hard to change. Bruce was “the confrontational comic.” (Collins and Skover 9) Unfortunately, the legal system disliked strong-willed, in your face defendants and Lenny suffered – and ultimately died under the pressure to conform.

Ultimately, he was jailed and convicted in New York on obscenity charges. He had lost, and lost big. According to Collins and Skover, “New York was the kindest and cruelest of places. It was filled with an inexplicable tension – a conflict between tolerance and intolerance, between creativity and conformity…It both made and destroyed Lenny Bruce.” (191) Lenny had gone to New York because he thought he could finally be free of the constraints of hypocritical societal norms, but he soon found that the laws in New York were no different than the other places where he had performed, and been arrested. Tragically, he never served out his term. He died while the case was under appeal.

Nearly forty years after his death, comedians, lawyers, and writers who were directly, or indirectly, affected by Lenny Bruce’s work came together to petition New York Governor George Pataki for a pardon. In December of 2003, it was granted; the first posthumous pardon granted in New York state history. Today, comedians such as George Carlin, Robin Williams, and others can step up to a microphone without fear of censure, or fear of prison.

Social disdain and antipathy are still with us, and as there have always been those that have pushed outward against the boundaries of conformity, there are those who now stand up against that boundary, and refuse to allow it back to its original place. James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce are just a few of the pioneers who paved the way for today’s contemporary artists. As long as society insists on setting forth norms based on an ideal that cannot be clearly defined, or enforced, there will always be a struggle for balance, fairness, and freedom in expressing ones individuality and creativity. A line has been drawn, and if there is any counterculture left in modern times, they must ensure that it is crossed at every opportunity. It is their legacy to do so.


Works Cited

“Bruce, Lenny [Alfred Schneider] (c. 1924 – 66)”. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. 2000. Xrefereplus. 24 April 2004 http://www.xreferplus.com/entry/964495.

Collins, Ronald K.L., and David M. Skover. The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002.

"Court Lifts Ban on ‘Ulysses’ Here ." New York Times 7 Dec. 1933. 27 Apr. 2007 <http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/01/09/specials/joyce-court.html>.

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Introduction. Howl on Trial. Ed. By Morgan, Bill, and Nancy J. Peters. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006. xi-xiii.

Goffman, Ken (a.k.a R.U. Sirius), and Dan Joy. Counterculture through the Ages: from Abraham to Acid House. New York: Villard Books, 2004.

Huston, William A. "Under Color of Law: Obscenity vs. The First Amendment." Nexus – A journal of opinion 10 (2005): 75-82. 28 Apr. 2007 <http://www.nexusjournal.org/2005obscenity/75-82.pdf>.

Morgan, Bill, and Nancy J. Peters, eds. Howl on Trial. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006.

Sellers, Charles, Henry May, and Neil R. McMillen. A Synopsis of American History. Vol. 2. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981. 2 vols.

Torgoff, Martin. Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger, eds. The Times Were A Changin’: the sixties reader. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Library Love

January 14, 2009 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Articles

Amy asked if I would be willing to write a guest post about supporting my local library, or really, why I love and support my local library. It is the second in a series of three guest posts for her blog, My Friend Amy.

I’ve made it clear through a few posts and comments left around the blogosphere, that I tend to purchase most of my books from a group called Friends of the Library who run a bookstore called Secondhand Prose. Proceeds benefit the Washoe County Library System (WCLS).

Their mission is “to strengthen public libraries in Washoe County. Backed by the belief that libraries are uniquely democratic, Friends promote, advocate for, and seek, funding for libraries. Through our projects, we strive to give children an educational head start, encourage literacy, and foster life-long learning and recreation for adults.”

An amazing but true fact: their volunteers recycle and use over 75 tons of books annually. Yes, that’s right – 75 tons!

This is a cause supports the love of learning, reading, education, and literacy. One that means as much to individuals as it does the community.

It is one that all of us should be concerned about.

This is why, and how, I support my local library:

  1. They have a Library Card that fits on my keychain, making it to always have my number available for logging into my account. With their online access, I can check on the status of books or any other materials I need. If they are available and not at my branch, I can ask that they be transferred and held. I get an automated phone call to let me know they have arrived, or I can check online myself.

    Also, the bar code on the back also makes it amazingly quick to check out items as they are only a scan away.

  2. MP3 Audiobook titles. This new format offers iPod®, iPhone™, and iPod Touch support. Overdrive Media console for Mac’s is also available.

    Not that I listen to books at the moment, but I know that many readers out there do. Until these peepers of mine give out, I still prefer the tactile enjoyment of leafing through a spellbinding tale. However, if I had a commute like the one I used to in California, this would be a no-brainer. I am thrilled that this is an option I have available to me.

  3. Fantastic programs for kids such as “Discover the Mysteries of the World @ Your Library” that encourages children of all ages to read for fun, knowledge and the opportunity to win prizes representing different countries. All library programs are free and children are welcome to participate at multiple libraries.
  4. Adults aren’t left out either as there are programs and reading clubs for every taste. They even have an event the first Sunday of every month called Conversation Café where you are encouraged to drop by and get to know others in your community.

And really, isn’t that what this is all about: community and the servicing of that community?

Just as our tax dollars are used to support the Police and Fire departments, it is just as important to spend them on an institution that shows no bias toward any group, toward any age, toward any faith.

I cannot put it any better than this policy approved by the WCLS in 1993. The following are excerpts. The entire text can be read here.


The freedom to read is essential to our democracy.

We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture… We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read. We believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings.

This is why whenever I chose to buy books, I always head to the store located in a small corner of my local branch; a place where I know that much of the proceeds are used to support the library and its programs, and truly, in the grand scheme of things, my community.

Sunday Salon: Discovering T.E. Lawrence

November 30, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Articles

Why have I never heard of this? And why have I found it now?
These are two questions I asked myself upon discovering, and reading several passages from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of the time he spent with the Arabs in the desert fighting the Turks. Yes, this is an account of the true “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Well, as true as one would expect of a memoir written after the fact, albeit fairly soon afterwards.

I am entranced with his account and amazed I had never heard of it until now. Thanks to The University of Adelaide Library and Project Gutenberg works like this can be read online or downloaded free.

The catalyst was coming across the movie while channel flipping and I simply had to stop and admire the breathtaking handsomeness of a young Peter O’Toole as well as a delicious looking Omar Sharif.

One particular scene, one that has always stuck in my mind, just happened to be on and I felt compelled to check on its veracity. Of course, it turned out to be true, as Lawrence recounted the event vividly in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I think many may guess which one. For me, it is one of the most powerful scenes ever filmed. It was from this that I did some research and learned that same sex rape of prisoners by the Turks was nothing new, not in their culture, nor in history.

If some of you cannot recall, Sherif Ali (Omar Sherif) is waiting outside the barracks where Lawrence (O’Toole) has been taken. He is well aware of what is happening behind closed doors. Throughout this scene, no words are spoken by the main characters, but much is said through the showing of emotion on Sharif’s face as he waits knowing there is nothing he can do. He plays the part so well, you can almost feel the pain of both men: one being beaten and raped, the other agonizing over his inaction.

Later, Lawrence is thrown into the mud, discarded as nothing more than refuse. Sharif races to him, helping him up, and then helping him heal…but he never did. Lawrence lived the remainder of his life acting out the classical symptoms of those who have suffered in such a way.

So how did this lead to my discovery? I wanted to know the truth behind the film. As we all know, movies based on true stories are purely that – “based” – as not much about the movie other than the premise turns out to be true.

This is how I learned about Seven Pillars of Wisdom and decided to take a look for myself about what actually happened.

This is also how I discovered an autobiography that not only holds my attention, but am anxious to read through. It is not a complete autobiography, just a recounting of his time as a British Officer during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks.

Here are a couple of excerpts that drew me in immediately:

The body was too coarse to feel the utmost of our sorrows and of our joys. Therefore, we abandoned it as rubbish: we left it below us to march forward, a breathing simulacrum, on its own unaided level, subject to influences from which in normal times our instincts would have shrunk. The men were young and sturdy; and hot flesh and blood unconsciously claimed a right in them and tormented their bellies with strange longings. Our privations and dangers fanned this virile heat, in a climate as racking as can be conceived. We had no shut places to be alone in, no thick clothes to hide our nature. Man in all things lived candidly with man.

and…

Blood was always on our hands: we were licensed to it. Wounding and killing seemed ephemeral pains, so very brief and sore was life with us. With the sorrow of living so great, the sorrow of punishment had to be pitiless. We lived for the day and died for it. When there was reason and desire to punish we wrote our lesson with gun or whip immediately in the sullen flesh of the sufferer, and the case was beyond appeal. The desert did not afford the refined slow penalties of courts and gaols.

I don’t know about you, but this is pretty powerful stuff .

Also, a little trivia: From my research, the second version of this book (the first was lost) was about 400,000 words which Lawrence reportedly wrote in three months time. For us NaNo people, that equates to over 133,000 a month!

I said in my last post that I wanted to read more. Well, I guess my wish is coming true a lot sooner than I imagined. It also shows me that some things simply cannot be planned. T.E. Lawrence nor anything he has written was ever on my radar. But this opportunity has presented itself for a reason and I am running with it.

My hopes, in sharing this experience with you, is to point out that when it comes to literary things, always have an open mind and a willing attitude as you never know when you might find something wonderful to read as well as learn something new about history and a society of which you were unaware.

Is there such a thing as literary archeology? Because I feel like I have dug around and found a treasure, buried beneath time, waiting for revelation and someone to appreciate it for what it has to offer.

Yeah. I’m weird that way.

Review: Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

August 23, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Interviews, Reviews




Sweetsmoke, David Fuller, 2008
Historical Fiction, 309 pages
Hyperion Books, ARC Edition

Synopsis taken from the author’s website:

The year is 1862, and the Civil War is in full flame. Cassius Howard, a slave and carpenter on a tobacco plantation, risks everything – extreme punishment, sale to a cotton plantation, even his life – to learn the truth concerning the murder of a freed black woman, a woman who secretly taught him to read and once saved his life. No one gives a damn about her small, rude, unimportant death in the midst of a brutal and hellish war. No one but Cassius, who braves unimaginable dangers to escape the plantation and avenge her death.

Sweetsmoke is Cassius’s journey into knowledge, knowledge that tests him and very nearly destroys him, ultimately guiding him toward freedom.

I like the above verbiage better than what was provided on the book jacket. It more accurately touches on what I think is an important aspect of this story. In fact, it is that last sentence that sticks with me the most, as it is this impression that still remains long after I turned the last page.

It is such a strong undercurrent, that the solving of his friends murder is almost anti-climatic when you realize that so much more was accomplished by Cassius’ quest. In seeking vengeance for another, he found a way to free him from that which enslaved him, physically and emotionally.

I received an advanced reader’s copy of Sweetsmoke through my membership in the Early Reviewers group at LibraryThing. Upon opening the package from Hyperion Books, I was impressed. Presented in trade paperback form, the cover is well done and appropriate for the story within. For me, a book cover is as much a part of the overall package as the contents, and neither failed to disappoint.

As I stated earlier, the main plot is a murder mystery. But as the story unfolds, so do the intricate layers of characterization and storytelling, which clearly display the skill of the author not only in the research needed to set the environment, but the understanding of the lives of the various peoples caught up in one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

From the first chapter onward, Fuller offers an easy to read, informative story that at times is uncomfortable, but not because of his writing. Slavery was a brutal institution, and the author does not shy away from the atrocities committed. However never are they presented gratuitously or so graphic, that one must pull their eyes and minds away in horror or disgust.

One of the passages that truly struck me was one in which a slave owner had a thought, a daydream if you will, which offered an insight she brushed aside, but I could not:

A strange and fleeting image entered Ellen’s mind, that of a large cage in a small room. The cage was filled with slaves while their masters were outside the cage squeezed and immobile in the narrow space between the cage and walls. This was a queer image indeed as both master and slave were unable to reach the fresh air that beckoned through a wide open door.

For me this represented the quandary that faced the South at this time. That this institution that many felt they could not do without, had in fact become a “responsibility” they could no longer handle, and in a sense, imprisoned them as much as those who they enslaved.

Freedom and a better life lay just within reach, but were inaccessible because of a belief system that few refused to acknowledge as inhumane and unacceptable.

I would love to go on and on about this book, but if I did, what incentive would be left for you to go out and get a copy yourself and read it. And you should. I could have read this book in one sitting, but started it much too late in the day to do so: it was that good.

For this reason it is getting 5 Stars.

*****

Below is an interview the author kindly consented to provide for a writer’s group I co-host over at RedBubble. I hope you enjoy it – as well as his book, which I highly recommend you read.

I was intrigued by this comment you made in your Q&A: “Imagination and empathy are the tools of the writer.” What importance do you give these ‘tools’ over such things as research? Or are they simply parts of a whole, and should be used together to create not only an accurate story, but also one which has feeling and substance.

First of all, thank you for inviting me to take part in this interview.

When speaking of imagination and empathy versus research, it depends upon the project, of course, but a balance is needed, particularly in historical fiction. With SWEETSMOKE, research was essential so that the reader could comfortably enter the world of Civil War Virginia and slavery, and feel safe in the hands of the writer. If the reader intuits that the writer is faking it, then the reader will dismiss the book out of hand. Research was also my net. I would not have been at ease writing this story if I did not feel like I knew the world in which Cassius lived. I want to say up front, I am not a historian. I’m a storyteller. I did the research not to understand the whole of the world of 1862 America, but to be able to tell this particular story.

Once the world is established through research, you then have to tell your story, and the writer needs imagination and empathy to see through the eyes of his or her characters. Once I put myself into Cassius’s world, I could then attempt to see and experience that world through his prism. It begins with his attitude. I was interested in seeing Cassius, who is wholeheartedly not a victim, navigate his way through a world in which he is savagely oppressed. He must find cracks and corners through which to accomplish his journey to knowledge, and then, hopefully, to some form of freedom.

You’ve also stated that “We all must pay a great debt of gratitude to the writers who have come before us.” Do you feel that now that you have written a novel (and hopefully a successful one), that the pressure is on you to provide a positive influence for others?

I don’t think of it as pressure. I have tried always to support other writers. Many hopeful young screenwriters have come to me with their work. I often spend two or three days reviewing the work and giving extensive, written notes. Sometimes the writers just want to be told it’s great and will sell for millions. But I believe you do a young writer a disservice if you don’t offer your most candid thoughts. How do they get better, otherwise? I had the benefit of a number of excellent writers, particularly in prose, who kicked my sorry butt, and eventually, gradually, painstakingly, made me better.

To what extent did you consider writing for the existing market in order to get published? Or did you strictly write for yourself, listening to your own voice, allowing the story to develop regardless of external considerations and pressures?
I have tried to write to please the marketplace. Whenever I do, that piece of work dies an ignominious death. When I am personally driven to write out of affection for a particular story, I often sell those pieces. But I know a lot of writers who understand the zeitgeist and feed it, and I respect that more than you can possibly know. I just haven’t been very successful at it.

With SWEETSMOKE, I figured I had painted myself into a corner. I had what seemed to be a Big Idea, but I was researching heavily and going for accuracy and (oh my) maybe even hoping to write well. I was not consciously trying to be literary, as that is the kiss of death, but the book I was interested in reading would have to be as well-written as I was capable of at that moment, with characters to whom I could relate. So I figured it was almost certain to fall between the cracks. That’s a long way of saying, I wrote it the way I heard it in my head because I wanted to be proud of it, even if it ended up sitting in manuscript form on the shelf.

I had read where some aspects of your characters came about during the writing of your novel. How much do you allow your characters to evolve and change throughout the story? How important is it for a writer to be extremely flexible in this regard?

If I get to the point early on in the story where the characters come alive in my head, then I know the story is working, because they take over. They don’t change the plot, but they do add to the intimate details of their lives and make the story richer. Subconsciously, we put things together from our homework as well as from our daily lives, and these things emerge through our fingers onto the keyboard in sometimes surprising fashion. When I try to force those things to happen, I always have to cut that stuff out later. A certain wrong word or awkward passage will poke at me (after I finish work for the day), and will keep poking, sometimes days later, until I go back and fix it. I’ve learned to listen to that naggy little voice in my head; it shames me for being lazy, and forces me to eradicate pathetic attempts at humor that I’ve tried to crowbar into the story.

Did you write straight through, and then go back and begin re-writes/editing? Or did you write a little at a time, and re-write as you went along?

At the beginning I spent a lot of time reviewing and rewriting, trying to find a handle on the overall voice, so that once I got it, I could charge forward. I was also looking for the characters to settle in. Cassius’s voice came early. But making sure I found a style that echoed the 19th Century while still being accessible to a modern audience took a little more time.

How do you determine the intended genre for your work or should this even be a consideration for writers?

Again, it depends on the project. If you’re writing a sports story, there are certain formulas that are going to pop up, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. You can either follow the formula, or you can try to turn it on its head. You also need to know your audience. There are expectations that come with certain kinds of stories. If you’re going to shrug off a genre, you need to warn your reader or your audience early on in your story, so they know the new rules. Nothing annoys me more as a reader than a writer playing fast and loose with the rules without giving me a map so that I can follow along. There is no reason not to write using a well known genre, and sometimes we entertain ourselves by subverting the genre. David Mamet considers genre writers to be our finest writers, and gives particular kudos to John Le Carre, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian. I love professionalism, and I respect professional writers who know how to do their jobs.

What sort of lessons have you learned from writing Sweetsmoke?

I learned that you have to trust your material, something I’ve always known, but it was particularly important to remember in a piece of historical fiction that might easily have slipped off the rails. I learned that it is sometimes easier to write from the point of view of someone who is very different from you, because you experience new things through a fresh set of eyes, all the while connecting to and exploring your common humanity.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that research can be a trap. At some point, you just have to give up on knowing everything and start writing, and remember that you can pick up the things that you need as you go along.

Do you plan to write another novel in the future?

Yes, I have already started a new novel. As I have yet to tell my agent and my editor anything about it, I think I will keep that secret here, as well.

Do you feel relieved you’ve finished a work, or a little sad that it’s done?

I am relieved when I get to the end in that it’s nice to have a finished piece. Of course, it’s never finished, and in the case of SWEETSMOKE, with the help of my excellent editor, Leslie Wells, the book just kept getting stronger. Someone once said that books are never finished, they’re abandoned. I could be working on it still. It’s strange to see it in book form, because that really means I have to leave it alone. I also miss writing Cassius. He was very much alive in my head for a long time. But his story is now told, and it’s time to move on.

How did you get a literary agent / publisher to read your work and pick you up?

I used every contact I had. I was not shy. I have been shy in the past, and watched work of which I was inordinately proud go precisely nowhere because I didn’t push hard enough. This time I thought I might be on to something and I called anyone and everyone I knew who might know someone. I am very lucky to be represented by Deborah Schneider, as she is not only a terrific human being, but a tough and ferocious ally. She liked the book and wanted to represent it, and she carried the ball into the endzone with publishers. Every writer should be lucky enough to have someone like her on their side.

Many of us have careers, families, etc. What tool or methods have you found that helps you work through and complete a project to meet a deadline?

In my early years, I wrote at the same time as working as an art director for a game show company. When things got tough and they let most of us go, I was lucky in the timing because I had just sold a screenplay. It went for $15,000, like all first screenplays, not quite enough to live on, but a first step.

I soon started working with Rick Natkin, and working with a partner taught me to compartmentalize. We often had four or five things going at the same time, all in different stages. You get good at jumping from one thing to another without dragging the first thing along. I have a lot of discipline when it comes to writing, discipline that I was forced to learn. I don’t have a set period of time when I write, but I know, when I’m working, that I will get my quality hours in. That flexibility has given me the time to spend with my sons, after school and on weekends, as they are growing up.

Is there any information you would like to share that has not been touched upon in the previous questions? Perhaps related to your experiences as an author or screenwriter?

While there are significant differences between screenplays and prose, there is much to carry from one to the other. One thing that does not carry over is respect. Screenwriters are given little respect in the movie world, which is unfortunate because it is a difficult craft to do well. In the world of publishing, my words, for better or for worse, are allowed to stand for themselves, and I can be judged on my actual work. This is something that I have really enjoyed.

Thank you again for allowing me to participate in this interview. I found your questions to be thoughtful and intelligent, and they challenged me to consider new things as well as to look at the work I had done in a fresh way.

It was my pleasure to take part.

I would like to add that it was my pleasure also in dealing with David for he is as gracious, kind, and generous as he sounds. His book was one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had this year, and I cannot say enough about how impressed I am at his first novel. I cannot wait until his next project hits the shelves.

My best wishes for success go out to him, and his family who, without doubt, supported him immensely through the entire process of bringing Sweetsmoke to fruition.


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