Tuesday, March 31, 2009


An earnest apology for the paucity of posts of late. Fortunately, the community of web-letters maintains a healthy conversation even as I recede for a moment.

But I can explain:

My novel, The Tornado Ashes Club, has been purchased.

I don't have a daughter. Hell, I only got a microwave last year. But this book is like a child to me - funny, loud, bit of a rascal, she'll break my heart if I look in her eyes too long.

You wouldn't want to sell your daughter to the highest bidder. But you'd be proud to walk her down the aisle if you knew you could trust the fellow standing up there waiting for her. That's how I feel about Grove/Atlantic - they came and asked me for my blessing, and I gave it.

I imagine my feelings right now are like those you get on that walk up the aisle: sorrow, a bittersweet taste of the mournful beauty of life, joy, the lifting of a crushing burden, fear.

My child no longer belongs just to me. Now she belongs to any reader who can love her good and true.

The Tornado Ashes Club was not an easy book to write. I wanted every sentence to hum with American music, to snap across the page like a note from a slide guitar at the end of a Saturday night when everyone's a little drunk, a little sad, a little in love, and the bottles are lined up along the bar like a ragtag army of brown glass.

There are still a few sentences that don't hum quite that way yet. But I'm confident the good folks at Grove will watch my clothes on the riverbank I wade across those final waters.

I came to a point where I'd either finish the book, or die. I'm still breathing, and there she is.

It feels almost disgusting to accept money for such work. But I will accept it (the money). In our age, it sometimes seems only the liars get rich. Maybe there's hope here for the craftsman, the mystic, the lonely hunter for the true phrase. I'll use the money for apples, cheese, bread, firewood, drop of whiskey here and there. The things that keep a writer going.

There's still work to be done. And I'll keep you all updated.

Thank you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Thoughts for the day

"My life is an effort to become as wise as I was the day I was born."

"I've found the most learned teachers are oak trees."

- Preston Brooks

Sunday, March 15, 2009


The world has been aflutter over Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever, and with good cause. Like a lancet Cheever penetrated the boil of American suburban discontent. I remember when my neighbors first got an above-ground pool, when I was twelve. This of course ruined what had once been a perfectly good habitat for chickadees. I attempted to think of an appropriate protest, and at last came up with it.

I printed out a copy of Cheever's "The Swimmer," and under cover of darkness I taped it to their pool.

But as with a typical Cheever protagonist, I was impotent to stop the decay of the land. Several days later, I saw the pages of the story scattered amongst the drying leaves. A Cheeverian image if ever their was one.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Metaphor Rating, #1

I try to make a study of the metaphors I come across, and assign them a letter grade. Here's one, from Gail Collins in the New York Times today:

"This will certainly require all the moral suasion available to the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, a man with the natural charisma of an oyster."

I rate this a C-. It's true that oysters are less charismatic than, say, Clark Gable. But "charisma," in the sense Collins is using, means "a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion."

Now, I don't know about leadership. Oysters cannot command mobs. But if you don't think oysters can inspire allegiance and devotion, get yourself a subscription to Saveur. Among all things, why oysters? I'd argue that almost any given tidepool creature, a limpet for instance, is less "charismatic" than an oyster.

But the image did stick in my craw, so it passes.

It's to the Irish, most inventive of races, that we owe the sandwich. Etymologically inclined readers will know that the very word comes from "sand wedge," a derisive term applied to the Irish laborers brought over to London to dig the Thames Tunnel under the direction of the legendary Isambard Brunel. These frugal workers would dine on a combination of cheddar cheese, bacon, and tomato - then thought to be poisonous - which they ate between two slices of white bread.

Since I was planning a day of burrowing myself - into my imagination rather than into the sub-Thamesian muck - I made myself a "sand-wedge," seen below.

The writing life does have its pleasures.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Do I Enjoy Writing?

There's lots of talk about Colm Toibin's claim that he finds no enjoyment in his writing.

Which put me to two thoughts:

1) I'm told women's brains release a chemical which causes them to forget the pain of childbirth. I wonder if writers have something similar.

2) One day, when I was about eight, attending Sacred Heart elementary, I asked Sister Katherine if she enjoyed being a nun.
"Do I enjoy it?" she asked.
She looked at me, then she pointed a bony finger at a crucifix hanging on the wall.
"I enjoy what I have to do a hell of a lot more than He enjoyed what He had to do."

Friday, February 27, 2009

A story

We hear it here, here, here, here. Publishing is doomed! It's all over! The model just doesn't work anymore!

Well, let me offer a story.

It's 1598. All across England, writers are wringing their hands. "I can't find a patron!" "Patronage is drying out!" "No earls will sponsor poetry anymore!" "How will the sonnetist of the future get paid?" Citing "cutbacks," dukes and counts dispensed with those retainers who'd been charged with finding poets of taste.

The gloomy writers published broadsides about the end of poetry. Others claimed that "micropatronage" might be the future, with each reader of a poem paying a single shilling, rather than one earl funding the whole business. The alehouses filled with tense arguments and dire predictions.

The Cambridge wags, who'd only been in it for the grog and the whores, went back to their fathers' estates. The country poets found temp work as blacksmiths' assistants. Folio publishers turned to printing crude pornographic etchings to stay afloat. But one thing was clear: the Golden Age of Poetry had come to an end.

Meanwhile, in the back office of a little theater, a young man named William shut himself up and wrote the greatest plays the world has ever seen.