Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Secret Life of Books

Today is the official publication date of An American Tune.

I started to type an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, but hesitated because an exclamation point doesn’t really convey the unsettling mix of relief, accomplishment, hope, mortification, and dread that always accompanies the publication of a new book.

In fact, sending a novel out into the world feels a lot like sending your child off to kindergarten—or worse, junior high—knowing that nobody in the world will care about her as much as you do. Some will like her; some won’t. Some will befriend her, even take the time to help her find a path; some will be mean to her—just because they can.

And, for the most part, there’s little you can do about it.

Still, it is an amazing thing to hold the book you wrote in your hands—especially when it is as beautiful as the book IU Press made of mine.

It’s amazing to think of it making its way through the world, too—which is worthy of an exclamation point!

Your book on bookshelves and bedside tables of people you’ll never know, in ordinary and exotic places you’ll never visit.

Readers on airplanes and beaches and front porches, readers in cozy studies, busy cafes, and bleak hospital waiting rooms—every single one of them lost in the world you made with words. A reader handing your book to a friend, saying, “Read this. You’ll love it.” And that friend handing it to someone else and that friend…

Years from now, a battered copy discovered in a box of books in someone’s attic.

A book has a life of its own that has little to do with blurbs or reviews or sales figures, finding its secret way into the lives of readers who love, even need it.

Note to self: Remember that.

So off you go, book of my heart. Happy travels.

But pop up now and then, will you? Let me know you are.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Everyone's Gone to the Moon

It’s a football Saturday, but I’ve put off doing the leaf collection I have to do for my biology topics class till the last minute and have to miss the game to be able to get it done in time.

I hate this stupid class anyway. It’s full of upperclassmen, elementary education majors who have waited till the last minute to take it. Cool sorority girls, one who rides a yellow Vespa around campus, and I feel dumb, like the freshman I am, around them. The professor is a spry, though wizened old lady who is in love with nature and believes we are all as rapturous as she is about the opportunity to put on waders and look for tadpoles on our field trip to Griffey Lake or learn about the magnificent trees that surround us by making a leaf collection.

Pissed off, feeling sorry for myself, I set off from the dorm and, as if things aren’t bad enough, I’m crossing Jordan Avenue to take the path past the DG house into the woods and a car stops and backs up. It’s the guy I dated toward the end of the summer, with one of his friends. The night before I left for Bloomington, he told me he liked me a lot. I murmured I liked him, too—which I did, but not like he liked me.

“Write?” he asked.

I said I would, but haven’t done it.

Now here he is in the passenger seat of the car, his face all lit up at the sight of me.

“Hey, come with us,” he says.

“I’m really sorry,” I say. “But I can’t. I have to do this stupid leaf collection. Now.”

Then turn and head back for the path before he can ask, “How about this evening?”

I love the woods, the winding creek I’ve learned to call the Jordan River. It is so completely different here from “The Region,” where I grew up, with its petroleum refineries, chemical factories and steel mills, my own grim neighborhood full of men who work in them. I never want to go back there, and I try to make myself feel a little better about being such a jerk by telling myself I’ve done the right thing, the only thing I could have done, dumping that guy. Almost everyone who grows up in ”The Region” ends up living there forever—and probably he will, too. Even if I had liked him as much as he liked me, dumping him would have been the right thing to do.

The problem is how you did it, a little voice in my head says. The least you should have done was tell him you’re with someone else.

Just keep walking, I tell myself. Don’t look back.

There’s no one on the path but me. Everyone’s gone to the game, I think. Steve’s with his friends in the Sigma Chi block eating snow cones made with Chianti wine and laughing about how bad the football team is and yelling, “Blood. Blood. Blood makes the grass grow,” and here I am all by myself because of a goddamn leaf collection.

But the woods are aflame with color, leaves drifting down around me like bits of bright confetti and the sun slants through the trees touching my face so that the cool of the woods and the warmth of the sun feel like the same thing. The sound of the Jordan River bubbling along, the occasional bird call, the whisper of the breeze calms me and suddenly, somehow, everything in the world outside the woods falls away and I am wholly myself, this new fragile, thrilling self, in this moment, this place.

I have never in my life felt anything like this before. I stand, breathing, under a Red Oak tree. I know it’s a red oak because there’s a brass plaque on the trunk with “Red Oak, Querus Rubra” inscribed on it—and that brass plaque feels like a gift.

A lot of trees have plaques on them, it turns out. So I can just tape each leaf by its stem to a page in the notebook I’ve brought with me and copy the name down—instead of having to look every single one up in the tree book. The Latin names please me, I experiment with pronouncing them in a low voice.

Sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus.

Black Walnut, Populus nigra.

Beech, Fagus sylvatica.

Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum.

The marvelous Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo Biloba, each yellow leaf with its ruffled edges a perfect little fan.

I shuffle along, dried leaves crackling beneath my feet, picking up leaves as I go. I sit on a bench a while, leaves falling on me like a gentle rain.

There’s a song I like, “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and, alone in the woods, the campus deserted, it feels like everyone’s gone to the moon. Or maybe it’s me who’s disappeared—a thought that makes me feel sweetly melancholy, like the song sounds.

My notebook thick with named and unnamed leaves, I head for the Commons to have a Coke before going back to the dorm. It’s deserted, too. Just me and a scruffy Bagger guy, who sits down near me and strikes up a conversation. I feel strange sitting here talking to this person who’s so different from Steve and his fraternity brothers. He interests me, though, which scares me a little.

So I don’t stay. I finish my Coke, gather up my notebook, and walk toward Saturday night.

Where were you when this song was playing on the radio?

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Blowin' in the Wind

Long, straight blond hair: who doesn’t want it? I spent my senior year in high school growing mine out just past my shoulders, getting ready for college—and now I’m here I think I look at least moderately cool in my madras shirts, wheat jeans and penny loafers, that long, straight, blond hair blowing in the wind. But do I want to be Mary, or that Surfer Girl the Beach Boys sing about with such longing?

“Surfer Girl” better suits the world of fraternity parties I’ve fallen into, even though Bloomington is about as far from an ocean as you can be. But, making my way to the Commons alone, I often peer down the stairs into the Kiva, where the Beatniks hang out, smoking, drinking coffee, reading poetry, and talking about Serious Things. Thin, soulful-looking guys with beards, girls with Mary hair, like mine, perch on bar stools with their guitars and sing woeful, apocalyptic songs: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

And a new one that just came out—“Eve of Destruction”—which I love.

Steve thinks it’s stupid and melodramatic.

He thinks the people who hang out at the Kiva are weird. “Baggers,” he and his friends call them, after the green army surplus bags they sling over their shoulder. “Goddamn Commies,” they say.

We almost argue about this, but don’t.

The thing is, I know that my idea of Beatniks—or Baggers—is a ridiculous mix of Maynard G. Krebs, on the “Dobie Gillis Show;” Kookie, the hip parking lot attendant in “77 Sunset Strip;” “Hootenanny,” and sneaking down to Greenwich Village with some friends on a high school trip to New York last year, ecstatic to discover Bleecker Street, where there were real Beatniks and music drifted into the crisp autumn evening from the Bitter End, The Village Gate, the CafĂ© au Go Go, places where I knew the grooviest folk singers played.

Nonetheless, part of me daydreams of dressing in black and heading down to the Kiva to listen to bongos and revel in the coming apocalypse. The other part, the girl I became the very first day I got to campus, says, “Are you out of your mind?

I follow the music into the Commons, where the jukebox is always playing the Beatles, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, the Four Tops, the Righteous Brothers, Martha and the Vandellas.

Sonny and Cher, “I Got You, Babe.”

And admit to myself that, at least right now, all I really want to do is dance.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where Were You When This Song Was Playing on the Radio?

Who hasn’t felt that weird slippage of time that occurs when a song comes on the radio and, all of a sudden, you’re in a whole other time—in a car, your teenage bedroom, a classroom; at a dance or football game; on a picnic blanket, making out by a lake—and that song is playing, the person you were then is listening to it. The jolt of pure emotion you feel is so real, so visceral that you feel disoriented when the song is over, not quite certain who you are now. If music is in a novel, the reader hears the song as it played in her own life at the same time she’s hearing play it in the characters' lives, and this triggers memories and emotions that complicate and deepen the novel’s effect in a way that the author could never predict or hope to understand.

Novels trigger all kinds of time travel, connecting us to moments in our own past and coloring our impression of the story on the page. In fact, all things being equal, the nature and quality of time travel a novel evokes in us may explain why we fall in love with some books and only admire others.

Of course, I didn’t know it then, but An American Tune began on September 12, 1965, the day I arrived in Bloomington to begin my freshman year at Indiana University. That evening, I walked to the Union with a bunch of girls I’d just me. We got Cokes, then sat down in the Commons to check out the scene. A friend from my hometown came through the revolving door with some of his fraternity brothers, and they stopped at our table. We chatted. One of them invited me to a party the next night—the guy I would eventually marry.

I don’t remember what song was playing on the jukebox, but the song that takes me right back to that moment is “1-2-3,” by Len Barry, one of those goofy, before-the-revolution songs of the early sixties. Maybe because it was the song that always seemed to be playing on the jukebox that fall when I hung out at the Commons or just passed through it on my way to class and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Maybe because Steve fairly quickly confessed that he had fallen in love with me at first sight and persisted in assuming that I would fall in love with him, too—until I did.

“One two three/Oh, that's how element'ry/It's gonna be/Come on let's fall in love/It's easy (it's so easy)/Like takin' candy (like takin' candy) from a baby.”

Oh, my God, I thought, typing them. They’re so sappy. It’s embarrassing. Nonetheless, here I am again, that girl walking through a door, into the rest of her life.

Today, the 47th anniversary of our first date, seems a good time to launch a series of blog posts about the music in An American Tune—little meditations about how my own American tune morphed into the American tune of a girl I might have been.

When you read these meditations (and the book, please!), I hope they’ll transport you to moments when the same songs songs were playing in your life. If they do, it would be so cool if you would share those memories here.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Why Reading Matters

A few years ago, I visited a high school English class that had read my YA novel, Stranded in Harmony. A spirited discussion about whether or not characters in books for young people should have sexual relationships ensued. Some said, yes—it would be dishonest not to, considering that so many teenagers are sexually active. Others said, no—to acknowledge such relationships is to encourage and condone them, and that’s not right. One said, maybe it would be okay for characters to have sexual relationships, but only if they were punished for them in some way—social ruination or pregnancy. The discussion went back and forth for some time. Then at the very end of the period, when kids were starting to gather their belongings in anticipation of the bell, a girl in the back, one who hadn’t participated in the conversation, raised her hand.

“I’m pregnant,” she said. “This book really helped me understand why my boyfriend acted the way he did when I told him.”

The bell rang, and she was gone—before I could thank her and tell her that what she had said was spot-on, not to mention the reason why I read and write fiction.

A good novel, one that presents life in all of its complexities, opens a door through which you enter the mind of someone who is not you. It makes you privy to the “whys” behind the faces characters presents to the world, which bring insights to the why the people in your real life behave the way they do—as it did for the girl in that class.

A good novel can also help you understand yourself. It can help you see the difference between the person you know you are inside and the person people perceive you to be because of the way you behave. It can make you braver, more willing to take a chance on someone. It can make you feel less lonely, knowing there others out there, struggling to make sense of life, as you are.

Best of all, reading good novels makes you curious about the human condition. You become less likely to make instant judgments about people, more likely to figure out why people do what they do less. Curiosity almost invariably begets compassion—and, together, they trump hate every single time.

I’m sorry to say that life has made me cynical about a number of things. But I will always, always believe that if we all read, thought about, talked about, and shared good novels, the world would be a kinder place.