Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

Barry Gifford’s Sad Stories of the Death of Kings is a series of vignettes that, in the beginning, feel random, but glue themselves together in your mind as you read until, by the end, you’ve got a picture of a time and a place and a kid’s life in it

The late fifties/early sixties is the time, Chicago is the place, and Roy is the kid.

It’s a time and place I remember well. I grew up in Hammond, Indiana, about forty miles from Chicago. When I was a child, there were occasional excursions to the city—school trips to the Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry and family outings to White Sox games or to see the Christmas windows at Marshall Fields and Carson Pirie Scott. My mom worked at Carson’s, in Hammond, and once a year we drove into the city for their annual employees’ day, when the store was open on a Sunday only for their employees and families with special discounts galore.

My English grandparents visited us in 1957, when I was ten, and I remember driving along the lakeshore in early evening after we’d picked them up at Midway Airport feeling so proud when they said how lovely it was. Thrilled by the way they said it, in their wonderful English accents.

My friend Linda’s dad worked in the city and when we were in high school sometimes he’d let us drive in with him on Saturday morning and drop us off in the Loop. It was too early for the Carson’s or Marshall Fields or—our favorite—Krochs & Brentanos Book Store to be open, so we’d get Cokes at the soda fountain in Walgreens and hang out there for a while. We never had much money to spend, but we loved to browse the big department stores, and look at the books and stationery in Krochs & Brentanos, the sticks of sealing wax in a dozen colors and the gold stamps, each with a letter of the alphabet on it, meant to press into the hot wax over the sealed part of the letter so the recipient could tell if someone had opened it. A boyfriend, preferably, though neither of us had one. Late in the afternoon, we’d walk over to the Randolph Street station and take the South Shore home.

When we got drivers' licenses, sometimes a bunch of us girls would sneak off for a night on the town in somebody’s parent’s car. At least once an evening, stopped at a red light, someone would yell “Chinese Fire Drill” and we’d all jump out of the car, run around it, and get back in. All the better if the light changed in process and people started honking. We’d head north, past the building we knew housed WLS radio, where Dick Biondi was spinning the tunes turned up full-blast on our radio.

But the absolute best thing was Old Town. It was the closest thing to Greenwich Village that the Midwest had to offer, with its mix of beatniks and down-and-outs and young city people out for the evening. Wells Street was one big traffic jam in the early sixties and we’d cruise from one end to the other and back again, radio blaring, flirting with carloads of boys doing the same thing. Then we’d get out and thread our way through throngs of people on the street, stopping here and there to listen to the folk music we could hear coming out of the clubs we were still too young to enter.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings brought all this back to me—and more.

“Fruit boots,” for example.

“Style of shoe popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, ankle-high suede shoes with crepe rubber soles conventionally known as desert boots. English Mods embraced desert boots made by Clarks and their popularity spread to the U.S. where they were labeled “fruit boots” because of their perceived popularity with perceived homosexuals.” (Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.)

Of course, I was clueless about what “fruit” meant at the time. Not to mention “queer,” which was a word we used regularly to describe someone or something weird or uncool.

(“Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again,” my father said, truly upset, when I called my brother a queer at the dinner table one night. “Why?” I asked. But he wouldn’t tell me.)

“There they are,” Jimmy said. “I told you she’d be here.”

Standing halfway down the block were two girls, both wearing black scarves around their heads, navy blue pea coats, short black skirts with black tights and black fruit boots. One of them was smoking a cigarette.

“Bad Girls,” said Roy.

“I hope so,” said Jimmy Boyle.

I wasn’t a bad girl. I was too scared. But I knew those girls, and Barry Gifford got them just right. He got everything right.

If you grew up in the Chicago are in the fifties or sixties and you want your kids (or, gasp, grandkids) to know what it was like, or if you’re a Social Studies teacher who wants to bring that time alive for your students, introduce them to Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. The cool thing is that it comes in a special young adult edition.

How cool is it that Seven Stories Press figured out that this book, like so many good YA books, is equally compelling to kids and adults. We adults get our own edition, with a grittier image on the cover.

Though Gifford wrote the book for adults, he likes the idea of dual editions. “I thought, why not? I’m happy to have this double-barreled publication,” he said. Seven Stories asked him to change only one sentence. The new sentence ended up going into both editions.

I hope Sad Stories of the Death of Kings will be wildly successful for two reasons. One, because it’s a really good book and two, because success might mean good things for YA authors writing books that appeal to older readers as well as young ones.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Worlds & Houses: Thinking about the Novel

The last month or so I’ve been trying to make myself write creative nonfiction-—skimming the surface of some ideas that are compelling to me for a variety of reasons. But I can't seem to engage.

The other day I took out a novel I started last fall, still in the early stages, and fell into it,as if into a whole different world.

It is a whole different world, and that is I love most about writing novels.

I also love teaching and writing about writing because of the way I have to try to get to the bottom of how writing works to make it as clear as it can be to students and readers so often enlightens my understanding of my own process.

This passage was in Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process (University of Georgia Press), which I co-authored with Margaret-Love Denman:

You have seen or felt or dreamed something that you can't name, but that you know you can't live without. You set off on a journey to find it. There is no map; no one has ever been to this place. You barely know the people you are traveling with—your characters—but you know that they are the only people who know the way. You watch them, listen to them. You follow along, putting down the words to mark the path they make. It is a long journey, with many wrong turns and surprises. Every day, or as often as you can, you go to the world of the novel. Months pass.

Sometimes years.

Your journey through this world becomes an alternate reality. The people you "see" there every day are as real and confounding as your own family. You live with these characters, worry about them at unlikely moments. You are amazed, sometimes, at the way all kinds of things work their way into the story: newspaper stories you read, stories friends and family tell in passing, memories, ideas that delight you; the occasional glimpse of something beautiful, funny, or sad that you cannot forget; a passion for some person, place, or thing that you feel compelled to preserve—or that, perhaps, your life in the real world will not accommodate.

Sometimes you have to stop and do research; sometimes you have to stop and get a clear picture of what's there. Sometimes, like a recalcitrant child, the book just stops, and you have to trick and tease it into moving forward.

As the end nears, possibilities narrow, as in real life. This is partly comforting, partly appalling. The novel won't be all you hoped it would be, but you keep on anyway. To abandon it now would be unthinkable, like walking away from your own imperfect life.

And finally it is done. For a few days, you feel wonderful, free. You attend to business, clean your house, rake your yard, change the oil in your car, read, watch movies—actually pay attention when someone is talking to you. Then you begin to miss where the novel took you, the people in it, what it was. You feel anxious. There's nothing to organize your life around. What are you going to do? Have you written every single thing you know?

Yes, if you were doing it right.

But pretty soon you know some new things. You look at the book again, and you see that what you thought the book was the day you finished it and what it actually is don't quite match up. So you go at it again. And again, if you must. Until it is as close as possible to what you wanted it to be.

Trying to get to the bottom of why I can't resist the novel, why it almost always trumps the impulse to write creative nonfiction, pondering the completely different feel of the two processes, (don't ask me why) I started thinking about houses.

Writing creative nonfiction is like looking for something in a big house that has many rooms in it, each containing a mystery about my own life. The house is very much in the real world. What I'm looking for is mine, but I won’t know what it is until I find it. Some rooms lead to other rooms and sometimes back into rooms I’ve already visited, but all of the rooms are inside the house. The pleasure is in the possibilities, the connections, the insights, the release and resolution and, finally, the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve let somebody else in to the house and (for better or worse) made it feel like home to them. Maybe even made them see something they need to know about themselves. The house is, of course, my own mind.

Writing a novel, I have to create the world and find the house in it. Then I have to live in that house for a really long time with a bunch of people I might or might not like but have to get to know because they hold the keys--the clues--to the mysteries inside the rooms but won’t open the doors until I prove that I truly want to know what’s inside and won’t judge them, no matter what the rooms reveal—even if it’s something I don’t really want to know about myself. Paradox (lovely paradox): Though the house is not in the real world, once I find it I have to stay inside it to find the story.

The pleasures are in many ways similar to writing creative nonfiction—possibilities, connections, insights, release and resolution. The house in the alternate world is my mind, too—but maybe comparable to the difference between a seed and the flower that grows from it. Vivid, real—invisibly linked to its origin. The satisfaction lies in the knowledge that I’ve created a world that others can live in and believe in, and that may even hold some insight that will make it easier for them to live their own lives.

Each finished (and unfinished) novel has its its own physical feel--not unlike the physical feel of memories. Each is a whole world, a whole life inside my head. No so different from the feel readers get, first living inside, then remembering a book they love.

This floated up taking my dog, Louise, out this dark, rainy morning: A work of creative nonfiction is the story of a person thinking about the real world; a novel is the story of a person thinking about the real world…in metaphor.

The world and the house idea works for essays and stories, too—the worlds and houses are just smaller. A collection of essays that explores a particular world would be comparable to a collection of linked stories—the house of each essay or story in the same neighborhood.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tattoos on the Heart

I just finished Tattoos on the Heart, which some dear friends gave me for Christmas. The author, Gregory Boyle, is a Catholic priest who took over a Latino parish with serious gang issues in L.A. in the eighties—and ended up founding Homeboy Industries, which provides all kinds of employment to gang members and kids who are on the cusp of becoming gang members. The subtitle is “The Power of Boundless Compassion,” which is what the book is really about.

It’s a wonderful story about loving people just because they…are. It’s not a panacea for solving the gang problem—or any other problem, for that matter. For the most part, the kids Boyle’s parish stay in the gangs, they wound and kill their enemies, their enemies wound and kill them. All too often innocent people are wounded or killed when they get in the way. What Homeboy Industries does is make them work together, side-by-side, and get along in that place under the theory that it’s a lot harder to hate somebody you know. Things get less black and white, more complicated. There are personal consequences to your actions.

Here’s something I liked a lot—not a new idea to me, but the way Boyle said it shifted things a bit and brought some new understanding: “Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel says, ‘How narrow is the gate that leads to life.’ Mistakenly, I think, we have come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way. St Hedwig writes, ‘All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.’ It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive.”

Yes! It’s another way of saying, “Let something matter,” which is what I believe in. The gate is a thing, not an idea about the thing. As we say about writing, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s all about finding a place to stand.

In the end, though, Boyle's book begged my big questions about religion. I can understand a god that sets us in motion and loves us no matter what we do, but what compassionate god would set some of us in motion in a loving, plentiful world and others in a world of poverty and brutality? “God works in mysterious ways” is the usual answer to this question, but it’s not an answer, really, and I don’t buy it.

And heaven: always perplexing. Assuming it's the same for everyone, is that fair? Depending on the circumstances of their lives, it’s a whole lot easier for some people to be good.

I remember having a conversation (okay, argument) about religion with my sister-in-law years ago that came down to this: “If there were no God, why would anyone be good?” she asked. This shouldn’t have totally flabbergasted me, but it did. And she seemed no less flabbergasted by my response: “Why do you need God for that? Why wouldn’t we be good to people when it feels so much better than being mean-spirited and unforgiving?”

Maybe the better question would have been, what if hell and heaven weren’t in the mix? What if there were no eternal consequence to consider when faced with the option of being kind or unkind, helpful or indifferent?

I get faith. I understand and respect that part of the nature of faith is an acceptance of the fact that there are questions about what you believe that cannot be answered in any rational way. What bothers me is not acknowledging the questions, not even being interested in them—and, worse, being afraid to ask them. If there is a god, s/he gave us a questioning mind, which you have assume s/he meant us to use—and the mind is best put to use by trying to get to the bottom of things.

The operative word being, “trying.”

You can’t ever really get to the bottom of things, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t supposed to try.

In the end, what bugs me most of all is the refusal of paradox, which is at the heart of being alive. If you don’t acknowledge it, don’t allow it to enlighten and delight you—and profoundly scare the crap out of you—then in some very fundamental way you haven’t really lived at all.

And what if God is us, what if it’s as simple as that? That there is as much power in loving each other and knowing that we are loved by each other as in being loved by God?

Boyle writes about Cesar, who called in the middle of the night and said, “I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question…Have I…been…your son?” And when Boyle said, “Oh, hell, yeah,” Ceasar, relieved, said, crying, “…then I will be your…son. And you…will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”

“That’s right,” Boyle responded.

He goes on. “…Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.”

Then, making a leap that Cesar might or might not have made himself, “There is vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having…We see our plentitude in God’s own expansive view of us, and we marinate in it.”

My guess is that Cesar would say it was Boyle’s human love that saved him, Boyle’s love he was ‘marinating’ in. And I think Cesar would be right.