Thursday, June 28, 2007

How Holy Ole Cured His Back Problems

From a 1951 history of Seattle, entitled Skid Road.The mayor under discussion was a passionate orator, and nicknamed "Holy Ole" (yes, it rhymed).

[Mayor Ole] Hanson was working in Butte, Montana, in 1900 when he injured his spine; doctors doubted that he would ever walk again. But Ole's hero was Teddy Roosevelt, and Roosevelt had conquered illness by exercise. Hanson bought an old covered wagon and rigged up a combination harness and sling, which he fastened to the rear of the wagon; it enabled him to walk behind the prairie schooner. With his wife driving the wagon Hanson trudged along behind. He walked the seven hundred miles from Butte to Seattle and reached the Sound country physically fit.

From Murray Morgan's 1951 Skid Road, pp. 203-204.

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How Weapons Physicists Feel About Atomic Explosions

Speaking about working conditions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory circa 1987, one physicist described how things used to be:

And there was a great deal of adventure here in those days. ... With atmospheric testing, the way you collected samples was by climbing in the back seat of an air force airplane and taking off and having filter papers on either wing, and after the bomb goes off and you have a lovely mushroom cloud, then in an hour or so you make a quick pass through the cloud and expose the filter papers and collect samples and bring those back to the laboratory. . . . I thought that sounded absolutely wonderful.
--Quoted on p. 47 of Hugh Gusterson's 1996 Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ann Beattie on the Creative Impulse

My stories always seem to begin with something very small ... If I were to say I usually begin with a character, that wouldn't mean that I know the character's occupation or age or whether the character is happy or sad. I would know that the character is named Joe. Yes, sometimes the idea that the character's name is Joe has gotten me to the typewriter. More often it's really a physiological feeling that I should write something. This feeling doesn't always work out.

... I don't know how to talk about this without sounding like Yeats saying that the "Voices" were driving him into a room and dictating to him, but it's almost like that. Something in me has built up, and this is a compulsion to go and write something at the typewriter. It's not totally amorphous. There is something in the back of my mind: a sentence, a sense of remembering what it is like to be in the dead of winter and wanting to go to the beach in the summer, some vague notion like that. It's never more than that. I've never in my life sat down and said to myself, "Now I will write something about somebody to whom such-and-such will happen.

--Ann Beattie, quoted in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 55-56.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Samuel Delany on How Having an Audience Changes One's Art

Many years ago I was a page turner for the rehearsals of a concert of new music at Hunter College. One piece was written for twelve instruments, all of which had to play a different note of the scale -- except one, which was left out. The melody was really an absence of that note, which moved up and down, working its way through the composition, a traveling silence through a constant acoustic field of eleven other notes.

When the piece was played in rehearsal in an empty auditorium, the missing note was absolutely audible, hovering and drifting through the cloud of cacophony. But when you heard it in an auditorium full of people, the resonance of the auditorium changed, due to the general noise of people breathing, or shifting in their seats, or the new deployment of mass, or whatever. You could no longer hear the silent note.

That has always struck me as a good analogue for the art of the postmodern artist, who works today in a highly refined field. The writer is concerned with small resonances, phrase to phrase, word to word; such effects sometimes simply vanish before the reality of a statistical audience. But if everyone is quiet, sometimes you can hear them.
--Samuel Delany, interviewed in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 110.

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Samuel Delany on How to Write Believable Female Characters

As early as 1959 or '60, I'd noticed that there was something terribly wrong with the female characters in most novels I was reading. Most of the writers (men and women) tended to conceive of their male characters as combinations of purposeful actions, habitual actions, and gratuitous actions. A female character, in contrast, would be all gratuitous action if it was a "good woman," with no purposes and no habits; if it was a "bad woman," she would be all purpose, with no gratuitous actions and no habits. This seemed silly. Very early on I tried to think about women characters in terms of all three -- actions purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous.
--Samuel Delany, interviewed in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 99-100.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Russell Hoban on Why Storytelling Matters

Writing is the primary art. If the world had to be stripped of all but one of the arts, writing would be the one that would be kept because it communicates all our experience much more than painting or music. It's absolutely the primal art: someone saying, This is what happened to me and I want to tell you about it. We all have an urge to re-present our experience and to gain new understandings of it. Something happens, and then it's gone forever, and so you tell about it, and in telling about it you find something funny about it, or you learn something from it, or suddenly you see the tragedy of it. You have more life and more worldview when you talk about your experience, so that more of its aspects are revealed. There seems to be a human need to do that, to reexamine what has occurred or what might occur. Art is long and life is fleeting, right? Life slips by like shit through a tin horn, so in order to have anything of your life in the world, you have to make a story out of it in one way or another, whether you're playing it back in your memory, laying it out as a factual history, or fictionalizing it.

--Russell Hoban, author of Riddley Walkerand Kleinzeit,quoted in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, 1987, p. 150.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Barry Lopez on the Importance of the Nonhuman

The culture becomes solipsistic [when it loses touch with the natural world]. It produces too much self-referential material and loses a sense of itself in the world because it creates too much of the world in which it lives. The reason you go into unmanaged landscapes is in part to get out of a world in which all the references are to human scale or somehow devised from a sense of human values ... It encourages you to think in a pattern that's nonhuman. The proportion, line, color, and activity in wild landscapes are not arranged according to human schedules or systems of aesthetics. It's important to expose yourself to this. Otherwise you have no check on your philosophy except what you make up.

---From 1987's At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers,by Nicholas O'Connell, p. 5.

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Ivan Doig on Entertainment Fiction

I don't believe you have to be goosing the reader with outlandish surprises all the time, the notion that fiction has to be hyped up -- Ho! Here comes an axe murderer! Huh! Here's a Russian submarine! Jesus! Here's a killer comet from outer space! Life is vivid enough in itself. Look what happens to people as they go through their years. Everybody's got a story, everybody's got drama, good times and bad. There's a lot of intrinsic drama, and I think it cheapens fiction by having artificial sweetener in the plot all the time.

---From 1987's At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers,by Nicholas O'Connell, p. 303.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tom Robbins on the Writing Process and Why His Reputation Isn't Important to Him

The problem [with focusing on one's] reputation is that it's bound up with egoism ... The reason so many writers are depressed and dismal is that they tend to have large, stiff egos. Look at Saul Bellow. Now, he has a great reputation. He's rich and famous, he's won a Nobel Prize, critics everywhere wash his feet with their slobber. But Saul Bellow is one miserable old hound dog.


... [If you] ask me to describe the writing process, all I can think to say is that it's like a cross between flying to the moon and taking a shower in a motel.

---Author Tom Robbins, from At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers,by Nicholas O'Connell, pp. 282 and 284.

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Charles Johnson on Serious Writing

Charles Johnson, most famously the author of the National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, has this to say about what constitutes serious writing:

I think a real writer has to think in other terms. Not, "Will I get into this magazine? Will I get this NEA next year?" but whether or not this work is something he would do if a gun was held to his head and somebody was going to pull the trigger as soon as the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page was finished. Now if you can write out of the sense that you're going to die as soon as this work is done, then you will write with urgency, honesty, courage and without flinching at all, as if this were the last testament in language, the last utterance, you could ever make to anybody. If a work is written like that, then I want to read it. If somebody's writing out of that sense, then I'll say, "This is serious. This person's not fooling around. The work is not a means to some other end, the work is not just intended for some silly superficial goal, this work is the writer saying something because he or she feels that if it isn't said, it will never be said."

From At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers,by Nicholas O'Connell, p. 262.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Norman Maclean on Giving Up Everything to Write vs. Playing Croquet

Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs through It, talks about the costs of his writing, and starting so late in life:

I've given up everything to write ... I'm now getting so old I don't know whether I can write much more. I knew when I started, of course, that starting so late I wouldn't get much done, but I hoped to get a few things done very well. It's been very costly, though, and I don't know whether I would recommend it. I've sacrificed friends. I've lived alone. I work on a seven-day-a-week schedule. I get up at six or six-thirty every morning. I don't even go fishing up here any more.

When you're this old [84 or 85], you can't rely on genius pure and undefiled. You've got to introduce the advantages of being old and knowing how to be self-disciplined. You can do a lot of things because you can do what the young can't do, you can make yourself do it. And not only today or tomorrow, but for as long as it takes to do it. So it's a substitute, alas maybe not a very good one, for youth and genius and pure gift. And it can do a lot of things, but it's very, very costly. Sometimes I wish that when I retired I'd just gone off to Alaska or Scotland and played croquet on the lawn.

From At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers,by Nicholas O'Connell, p. 193.

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A Prayer for the Unwritten

I propose a moment of silence, not only for stories unread, but for stories untold. Was it not Cioran who said a book should both cure old wounds and inflict new ones? Thus, an unread book is what? A festering sore? A cancer? What then, I ask, is an unwritten book? I believe a silent prayer is called for.

--Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,p. 155

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Oregon Scenery -- Too Showy, Perhaps?

Poet William Stafford on the natural beauty of Oregon:

In some ways, let me say, the most minimal scenery is my kind of scenery. This is too busy a place. I stand it very well. It doesn't make me nervous. It's just that it's superfluous. Any Kansan knows that Oregon is a little too lavish.

---- from At the Field's End: Interviews with 20 Pacific Northwest Writers, Nicholas O'Connell, ed., p. 235.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Where Books Go When they Die

Here's a funny take on a serious problem. All over America, libraries are shedding books fast. The idea that many books -- not just a few -- should be preserved is starting to seem very Old Media. In the passage below, when you read "Jasper Dash," think "Tom Swift."

Often, if you go to a town library and under Keyword Search type "Jasper Dash," you'll come up with a list of his books -- and beside each one, it says: "Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn." This means that they are no longer in circulation. Some librarian has taken them off the shelf, wiping away a tear, and has opened the book to the back, where there's a pouch for a card dating back to the time of the Second World War, and she'll crumple up the card, and then she and her fellow librarians will take special knives and slice away at the book and will eat the pages in big mouthfuls until the book is all gone, the whole time weeping, because they hate this duty -- it is the worst part of their job -- for here was a book that was once someone's favorite, but which now is dead and empty. And the little cheerful face of Jasper Dash, heading off to fight a cattle-rustling ring in his biplane, will still be smiling pluckily as they take their Withdrawal Knives and scratch his book to pieces.

--from The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen: M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales,by M.T. Anderson, p. 7.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Oh? Wow! Thing! - M. T. Anderson's *Feed*

In M. T. Anderson's Feedfrom 2002, everyone is connected to an ongoing stream of information -- think the net on steroids, accessed 24 hrs/day through a chip implanted in your head. This connection is called, unsurprisingly, "the feed," and it's fairly traumatic for individuals whose connection is severed. In the passage below, the narrator and his friends have been disconnected from the feed by a hacker:

...[I]t's not so much about the educational stuff but more regarding the fact that everything that goes on, goes on on the feed. All of the feedcasts and the instant news, that's on there, so there's all the entertainment I was missing without a feed, like the girls were all missing their favorite feedcast, this show called Oh? Wow! Thing! which has all these kids like us who do stuff but get all pouty, which is what the girls go crazy for, the poutiness.

--Feed by M. T. Anderson, pp. 39-40

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

How Cockroaches View the Rapture

In tracking down more info about Charles Johnson on Wikipedia, I ran across an excellent, compelling review of his novel about Martin Luther King, Dreamer, at a website called Pretty Fakes. There was also a review of a Donald Harington novel which should not be missed. It's a novel in which not just one character, but all the characters are cockroaches ...

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Most Entertaining Author Bio Note of the Week

M.T. Anderson, author of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,the recent (and deserving) winner of the National Book Award, has also written several other young adult novels, including Feed,whose main characters are, not surprisingly, teenagers. In his bio note for the novel, he says:

"To write this novel, I read a huge number of magazines like Seventeen, Maxim, and Stuff. I listened to cell phone conversations in malls. People tend to shout. Where else could you get lines like, 'Dude, I think the truffle is totally undervalued?'"

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Would Your Short Story Pass the Grace Paley Test?

From an interview with Grace Paley, published in The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists , on pp. 138-139:

[Diane Osen]: The narrator of your "Conversations with my Father" says, "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life," and that kind of open-endedness characterizes [Isaac] Babel's stories as well as your own. Why does that particular narrative strategy appeal to you so strongly?

[Grace Paley]: A lot of short-story writers don't recognize that fact. I sometimes feel that if their stories went on for another day, everything would change. And it's cruel, I think, for the writer to end a story this way -- to leave the reader feeling that the story should have had one more day, because something would happen that would change everything. Now, maybe that's what they want to say, really, but I don't think so. I think it's just a technique of curtailing things and giving you a stomachache.

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