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The ambitious editors of Superstition Review have been assembling a massive collection of audio and video clips by their authors, and they invited me to add to it. Hence I’ve recorded a brief audio segment discussing my story “Ranger Ringo” that the magazine published in 2008. Originally I titled the clip “The Role of Memory in Autobiographical Fiction,” and it’s basically a guide to writing about your childhood when you can’t remember your childhood. Here are a couple of links that take you to the clip:

http://blog.superstitionreview.asu.edu/2016/12/13/authors-talk-sam-gridley/ (This includes the editor’s intro., a link to the original story, and a picture of my late dog Simon—who is obviously the best part of the enterprise.)

https://clyp.it/dutuwwzm (the audio clip only)

Please don’t tell Fergus (the guy grinning out at you from the top of this blog) about his predecessor. He thinks he’s an only child.

Generally Pissed Off

May 18, 2015

I thought people had given up noticing my novel The Shame of What We Are, but it’s found one new reader: Ken Dowell, who blogs at OffTheLeash.net. Dowell seems to think the portrait of the 1950s authentic: “Art Dennison and I did experience a lot of the same things,” he writes, “beginning with a patch on the right eye to keep the weaker left eye from losing interest.”

That patch may have been a metaphor in the novel—I don’t remember. In our current era, however good your eyesight, I think it’s best to squint. Or cover both eyes, which I’ll be doing tomorrow during my city’s primary elections.

Interestingly, of the several passages Dowell quotes from the book, one is about the political outlook of Art Dennison’s father: “People who liked [Adlai] Stevenson were Communists at heart, he said, or else fools, ‘the type that can’t find their own rear end when they are sitting on it.’” And Dowell comments, “His dad’s political views would have produced a knowing nod from my father.” Dowell also notes that the father is “generally pissed off” throughout the book.

I feel like the novel just got a knowing nod from someone who knows what to nod at. Guess I’ll have to stop being generally pissed off for a while.

What Alice Knew

“Henry James was drunk.”

So begins an entertaining literary mystery by Paula Marantz Cohen, What Alice Knew (Sourcebooks, 2010), set in 1888 London during the rampage of Jack the Ripper. Cohen’s animating conceit is that the baffled London police call in the famous American psychologist-philosopher William James for consultation. This puts William in the same city as his brother, the novelist Henry, and their sister Alice, a professional invalid, and the three collaborate in the investigation.

The notion of police employing a psychologist/spiritualist/weirdo is commonplace now, at least in fiction. On TV there’s the popular series The Mentalist, among others. In print, Caleb Carr’s 1994 mystery bestseller, The Alienist, sets up a team of a psychologist, a writer, and a secretary to investigate a serial killer in 1896 New York.

Cohen’s basic set-up is far from original, then. But her Jameses, as eccentric as they are famous, become as psychologically interesting as the killer they track. Alternating their points of view, Cohen allows each to contribute a unique perspective to the investigation. The style is fluid, and the dialogue sparkles. Minor characters like Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent step in to enhance the ambiance. Sly humor undercuts the characters’ pretenses, especially Henry’s; the poor chubby aesthete never quite recovers from that classic opening line.

After the recent speculation on the Jameses, Cohen could have made their own relationships as lurid as the Ripper’s slashings. It’s to her credit, I think, that she does NOT put William in bed with Alice, Henry with the male artists’ model, or Alice with her devoted live-in companion. Cohen’s Jameses flout Victorian convention only in their unconventional thinking, which in itself offers plenty of sizzle for this fine novel.

A few announcements to conclude this post:

  • The second installment of my story “End of the Ride” is up at The Piker Press. In place of similar annoying advertisements for the third and fourth parts, I’ll direct anyone who’s interested to this link to a page that should list each section as it becomes available.
  • My story “MG Repairs,” which came out in Carve Magazine in 2010, will be included in the magazine’s 2009–2010 Anthology. Why two years late? Because editor Matthew Limpede has a sensible approach to the absurd rush of our lives. Myself, I favor setting the clock back to 1993.
  • My novel The Shame of What We Are is now available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Everybody who’s not reading it in paperback can now not read it on a screen as well. But they’ll be missing the wonderful illustrations by Tom Jackson, which come out surprisingly well in the e-book.
  • “Wright has found a way to wed fragments of an iconic America to a luminously strange idiom, eerie as a tin whistle, which she uses to evoke the haunted quality of our carnal existence.” So said The New Yorker about poet C. D. Wright, who will be reading on February 2 at Villanova University’s Literary Festival. I love tin whistles. Complete info. about the festival, which will include William Kennedy and several other luminaries, is available here.

Strawberries, Pies, Books

April 28, 2011

Pie Eating in Seattle (from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Jmabel)

This weekend I’ll be visiting the Strawberry Festival at Peddlers Village in Lahaska, PA. Fran Grote and I will be hawking our novels at a table outside the Canterbury Tales Forever Bookstore, 10:00–1:00 on Saturday and 1:00–4:00 on Sunday. Come for the pie-eating contests, stay for the books. Note that Pennsylvanians will certainly be more refined than the Left Coasters in the picture. Feeding the authors is encouraged, but please do not throw pies.

The Importance of Place

December 18, 2010

Years ago, when I was reading a lot of Western writing—meaning books by authors of the American West, not genre “Westerns”—there was much talk about the importance of place in literature. This somewhat vague concept includes not just the physical attributes of a place but the meanings humans bring to the locale. American writers of the twentieth-century West became especially sensitive to place and its implications. Why? Several reasons come quickly to mind:

(1) Western writers shared a sense of outsiderness, feeling isolated from the supposed cultural centers of the East. For them, making place important was a form of self-assertion.

(2) Western landscapes are so dramatically different from those of the East—often harsh, dry, empty—that it seems they must intrude on a story, affecting the thoughts and emotions of the characters.

(3) Some Western experiences just don’t exist in the East. In Vermont you’ll never encounter a grizzly bear or a surfer, unless s/he’s on vacation.

(4) Because of Western geographic and climatic conditions, patterns of settlement differ. Could a suburban Connecticut tale, with neighbors right next door, be transplanted to a desert region of Arizona where you have to drive an hour to find a dentist?

(5) The West, being the new region, lacked the traditions of the East. It had little history, at least as far as Euro-American settlers from the East were concerned, and much of its real history was soon distorted into myth. Hence it was a locale, as Gertrude Stein remarked of Oakland, with no there there. Western writers focused on the sense of place in part because of the lack of human depth to their place.

(6) With open land for the taking, the West is where our migrants traditionally headed, and once there, they typically kept on moving. Even in the late twentieth century it was a territory where humans seemed more restless than mountain goats. Again, Western writers sensed what was missing, the deep rootedness that comes from staying in one spot for year after year, slowly changing with the neighbors, the growing tree in the backyard, the buildings that rise and fall, the succession of tragedies and comedies that give a place its character.

That last point resonates with me personally. My own family, like the Dennisons in my novel The Shame of What We Are, bounced around the East Coast until I was about eight, then skipped across the continent to southern California, where we continued bouncing and skipping. If that sun- and smog-blasted area could ever have felt like home to me, my family’s continuous uprooting made that impossible. The experience has been shared by many Americans, for whom dissatisfied wandering is a quintessential characteristic:

“Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.”

That’s Wallace Stegner in “The Sense of Place,” an essay included in his 1992 collection Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. He also quotes Wendell Berry’s famous line, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

These matters came to mind the other morning when, stumbling up the sidewalk on my way to work, I noticed a neighbor decorating her sidewalk tree. In our ultra-urban locale, holiday decorations tend to be muted. First off, if you put a Santa on your stoop, someone will steal him, which might bring a lawsuit by the elves for reckless endangerment of an icon. (Certainly the elves have powerful sway over the politicians and mega-lawyers downtown; there’s no other explanation for much of what happens here.) Second, since the houses are three stories high and joined to the neighbors’ in a block-long row, the notion of stringing bulbs or reindeer across the roofline is best left to a few crazy drunks or professional roofers. Even the people who bang on your door after a snowstorm and offer to shovel the sidewalk for $5 do not offer to hang Christmas lights.

So it was unusual that my neighbor—I’ll call her Martha—would be decking an outside tree, and her style of doing so seemed even less common: a three-foot cone of green boughs around the tree’s base. Insensitive as usual, I teased her that she was perverting nature by turning the poor maple upside down—bare at the top, pine-green at the bottom. Martha explained that she and her daughter had seen holiday decorations like this on a trip to Vienna, and they had agreed to do something similar at home. The daughter had taken photos as a reminder.

When I made it to the office and slurped my second cup of coffee, an appreciation of this slight interchange began to dawn on me, and it had to do with a slowly emerging sense of place. After the dozens of relocations of my early years, I’ve become firmly rooted in this neighborhood, so much that I don’t even like to leave for vacations. Though writer friends go away on “residencies” at “colonies” or “centers” in order to escape the daily mess and concentrate on their work, I’ve no interest in doing that. My only request is that someone get my daughter’s dog to stop barking at the empty sidewalk. (Shut UP, Alfie!)

Thus I could fit Martha’s behavior into its social and environmental context in a way not possible in my wandering early years, when I was always a tourist. I could smile about bringing a taste of aristocratic Vienna to working-class Fairmount, Philadelphia. More important, though, was the personal context, and that’s the crux of this tiny story.

Martha’s daughter, who had traveled to Vienna with her and taken the souvenir photos of the outdoor trees, died this past summer. A woman in her thirties with a young child. A mysterious stroke, then another, then a diagnosis of a cancer that had supposedly precipitated the strokes, then debilitating chemotherapy, then weeks of bedridden suffering, then another stroke that killed her.

Martha and her husband had been devastated by their daughter’s quick decline. Clearly the sidewalk tree, with its small tepee of greens and a ribbon near the top, was a memorial. Martha didn’t have to say that, and I didn’t remark on it. But I understood and appreciated, and she knew that I did, and this constituted a brief and very human moment in our cold winter season.

In its essence, the sense of place is about this sort of connectedness—to the environment, the society, the neighborhood, and most of all the people. Architects and planners have latched onto the concept, and there’s even a blog about it by Marilyn Finnemore. But I’m still not very good at connecting; distracted, hurried, impatient, I walked past Martha’s tree several more times before noticing it again.

My lifelong symptoms of displacement are widely shared by Americans, I suspect, even those who weren’t hauled from place to place as children, and I worry about what this means for our cultural future.

SHAME on Saturday

December 1, 2010

Click image to enlarge

It’s not such a bad day usually, Saturday, and for some it’s even a sabbath,* but this coming one, December 4, will be smudged by the official launch of my novel, The Shame of What We Are. The publisher is planning a joint celebration with Sowilo Press, which is launching my friend Debra Leigh Scott’s marvelous collection Other Likely Stories. Everyone who occasionally reads a book is welcome to stop by.

Debra’s book picks up in the 1960s, where mine leaves off, and ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Together the two books portray a troublesome quarter-century in American life, when we engaged in a nuclear arms race; persecuted our own citizens; fought in mysterious places in Asia; assassinated political leaders; invented, perfected, and then (in my opinion) destroyed rock ’n’ roll—and, somewhere along the way, undermined the traditional nuclear family. How much connection was there between public misadventures and private confusion?

I’m told the party will feature live music appropriate to the time period. If it’s disco, I’ll be hiding under a table.

*Which reminds me: Hanukkah has just begun here on the East Coast. To all who celebrate it, or wish they did, have a joyful one.

After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)

One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.

Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.

Joanie & Bobby in 1963

Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.

So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.

It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.

It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.

So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”

I want to hide under my chair.

Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.