An Interview with Josh Gross, author of THE FUNERAL PAPERS

Josh Gross, a southern Oregon native and Portland State alumnus, is a journalist, playwright and author of four books. His most recent book, a memoir called The Funeral Papers, is the story of Gross and his estranged father who died two years ago.

EB: Tell us a little about The Funeral Papers?

JG: My father and I didn’t really speak for the 15 years before he died. A major contributing factor to that was that I saw his self-identity as a writer as an excuse he used to not get a job or be a good parent. It might have been different if he’d ever produced anything. But it was a classic “those who talk don’t do, and those who do don’t talk,” situation. He talked about being a writer all the time, but never seemed to put pen to paper. So imagine my surprise when at his funeral I was given a manilla envelope of his collected works. It sort of threw everything I thought I knew about him, about us, into a tailspin. The Funeral Papers is a curated collection of his writing, my reactions to it, and postcards of our relationship and his passing that investigate how and why it all went sideways to see if there was another man beyond the one I thought I knew, and if forgiveness is even possible.

EB: What made you decide to write this memoir?

JG: It started as a journal entry about how weird his funeral was—and I say that as someone that has been to a funeral that turned into a dance party. It pretty much turned into an open mic, with accordion players, and stories about his time in the special forces with Elvis, and bizarre advice on grieving from his new age friends. It was as funny as it was intense. But while I was writing that I realized a couple things. 1. Since I was going to have to dig into his collected works anyhow, this would be a good means to cope with that process. 2. Since my failings as a child are myriad, and since he didn’t get any recognition in life, this might be a way to do something for him posthumously. 3. Cynically: the overly-honest, incredibly raw family memoir tends to sell well, and it was already half-written for me.

EB: You refer to this as a co-memoir. What do you think your father would say?

JG: Jeez. If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t have had to write this book. Hayo!

EB: Do you and your father share any literary influences?

JG: Not that I can tell. He gave me a lot of books, but it usually went badly because he was obsessed with grooming me to be a religious leader—but in really surreal ways. For example: he once got it in his head that I should read Lord of the Flies. Which sort of makes sense, since it’s generally required reading for high schoolers. Thing is, I was like, six at the time. So when I refused, he read it to me against my will. And when I was too horrified and uncomfortable to continue and started crying, he took me to the movie. In high school, he somehow acquired a really nice vintage Italian-imported bass guitar made by JG guitars (meaning my initials were built into the headstock in abalone, which was pretty sweet), and said I could have it for free, if I’d just read a book he wanted me to read. The book was called Autobiography of an Awakening, and though it was only 152 pages long, it took me three months to finish because it was so condescending and boring I literally fell asleep every four pages or so. At the end, I had to take a quiz. It remains, the worst book I’ve ever read. I would actually pay the cover price just to save someone else from it. Short version: Arnie really liked poetry and spirituality and I liked stories about robots—which in many ways is a succinct metaphor for our inability to connect.

EB: What do you want readers to take away from the book?

JG:
A desire for readers to try to see and understand their parents as people independent of them.

EB: A major component of Arnie’s personal history in the book is his involvement in the Sausalito Houseboat Community, both as a resident and columnist for the local paper. When you talk about the Sausalito houseboat wars (the decade-long legal and occasionally physical fight between the county and residents of the houseboat community over the legal status of their homes, a major event in Bay Area history), you describe Arnie as “one of the people who didn’t know he was in a fight.” Can you elaborate?

JG: I mean that the way he spoke and wrote about it treated it as a tall tale, as a caper, rather than as a choice between two paths, and that he could affect what which path was taken through his actions. He was quick to talk about the police raids, and the pranks, but never about organizing against the county in court or fighting back. Basically, it’s pretty clear in his first-person account of the Houseboat Wars (which I’ve included as an appendix in the book) that though he lived there for more than a decade, he viewed the conflict as an outsider, or as something that was happening around him, rather than something that he was a part of, and could influence. And because of that, he was never part of the victory. I think that in this age of gentrification, that’s an especially important element of the book to grasp.

EB: How did your family and your father’s friends react to the project?

JG: I don’t think any my father’s friends know about it yet, so I can’t say. But with this sort of nonfiction, you can’t worry too much about what other people might think because it can lead to self-censorship.

That said, if I were to speculate, I’m not sure they’d like it. For one: they didn’t experience Arnie the same way I did, so we have very different perspectives, and mine, is at times, quite caustic. For two: There are major cultural and generational conflicts that formed much of Arnie and I’s inability to connect, and they are as much a part of that as he is. For three: The biggest part of his writing that I cut from the final text was a collection of newspaper profiles of his friends, yet to his friends, those pieces would probably comprise the core of his writing, despite their being of no interest to anyone else.

EB: What have you got planned for your own funeral?

JG: I’d like animatronics and speakers to be installed in my body so that at the flip of a switch, my body will rise from my grave and say, “if I’m going out, then you’re all coming with me.” That’d be hilarious. Then karaoke. Basically, I’d want to Andy Kaufman the shit out of it. That would be a celebration of the way I like to live my life, just as much as his funeral was a celebration of the strange, confusing, and often wildly misleading way he liked to live his.

EB: What other projects have you got in the works?

JG: I run a small theater company and our next big production is my musical comedy adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. The script was written earlier this year, and I’m finishing up the music right now for a fall production. After that, we’ll be staging another script of mine, The Manifesto Monologues, a true-crime drama about three famous murderers. This summer I’m also probably going to start the script for the musical follow-up to the Cthulhu adaptation, Robopocalypse: The Musical, and either revisit the existing draft of another memoir I wrote about my time in youth prison, or novelize a sitcom pitch I wrote last year with a friend in the film industry.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JG: No prob.

You can check out Josh Gross’s book trailer here:

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An Interview with Mari Gayatri Stein, author of Out of the Blue Valise

Mari Gayatri Stein is the author of eleven books and the illustrator of many others. She has contributed regular articles to such publications as Inquiring Mind, The Medford Mail Tribune, Tea Magazine, and The Healing Garden Journal. Stein has been an actor and traded her Hollywood hometown for an organic farm in Oregon where she lives with her husband and a pair of rescue dogs. In addition to her work as an artist and writer, she teaches meditation and yoga and works with women in recovery.

You can find more of her work at Gypsy Dog Press and soon at mariswebsite.com.

EB: Out of the Blue Valise is something of a departure for you as a writer. How did the book come about?

MGS: It began with a birthday gift: an adorable stuffed hippo who föted (Hippoease for flatulence). Po had a powerful personality. She became my constant companion. Po loved driving through the countryside with the top down, eating chocolate—she pronounced it shokolad, and couldn’t get her fill of British mysteries. In the winter, Po, my husband Robert, Mumbles and Snowflake (our rescue dogs) and I migrated to Malibu to escape the Oregon chill. After several days of meditating on the oh-so-blue breaking waves below the bluffs, Po and I began writing a story about a hippopotamus in search of authenticity, love and cheap thrills. Our pilgrimage commenced. We were on a magical mission. The scribbles became chapters, proliferated into The Po Pages and eventually morphed into Out of the Blue Valise. The compelling factor that changed Po from a frivolous bedtime story to a novel with serious intent (still retaining its whimsical nature) was cancer. Out of the Blue Valise became a book within a book and gathered gravitas.

EB: You got a veritable wonderland of curious animal characters—a shape changing hippo, a multilingual zebra, a frog. Why did you choose to focus the story around endangered animals?

MGS: We are all endangered species. Our very globe is imperiled. Human beings are complicated, self-involved and absent most of the time. Animals are innocents and utterly present. These pure souls are our saviors. They expand our hearts as spontaneously as a smile erupts on our faces when we see them, touch them, breath them in, admire and sit in awe of them. It is down to us to save them from extinction. Genocide and specicide are the nemesis of all that is sacred and spiritual. The endangered animals have the ability to break open our hearts, and by so doing they ignite our compassion and rescue us from ourselves.

EB: This is very much a healing fantasy. What is the role of fantasy in our lives, do you think? Escape, healing, something else?

MGS: Thank you. That was the intention—to delight, inspire, heal and provide sanctuary within the pages of Blue Valise. Humans have forgotten how to be happy. Fantasy and whimsy are inherent in our childlike nature and bring out the best in us. They are the antidote to earnestness and discontent. Life without humor is tyranny. Humor allows me to keep my boots on the ground and at the same time surrender to the joy of the moment. That is the magic of Po and her crew. Fantasy is the chocolate icing on her chocolate cake.

The writing of Blue Valise gave me refuge while dealing with cancer twice in two years; a safe place to dwell where meaning and purpose existed. Po’s world made me happy and lent equanimity to endless days filled with life and death scenarios. It buffered me against self-obsession, implosion, worry, doubt and fear.

Our fantasies, imagination and stories keep our hearts tender. They do offer escape, and they heal us. What is real or unreal? In the core of the Blue Valise lies the answer to this conundrum.

EB: Can you explain the idea of the blue valise to our readers?

MGS: The blue valise is packed for the ultimate journey within and without. When Petal lifts the lid and Po leaps into her arms, all things become possible. The valise reveals a bevy of characters and global adventures. Estranged twin British aristocrats will reconcile their differences by collaborating in the rescue of an endangered hippo held hostage in Africa. A lonely and victimized zebra with red stripes will be sneaked out of a Paris zoo by Petal’s bosom friend Dr. Jake. Characters will hippomorphosize—change size with a secret password, and finally defeat a supersized villain out for blood. And more.

Everything exists within the blue valise. All at once, Petal faces her demons and dreams and there is no turning back.

EB: You are also an illustrator, so I’m curious about the ways in which the visual dimension might inform your writing.

MGS: The pictures provide the subtext. In the same way that a friend’s expression and body language reveal more about her than the words issuing from her lips, my illustrations divulge a character’s true identity. They offer intimacy and insight into our hearts and souls—our humanity. No apology. No prevarication. No debate. Nice or nasty, drawings are the unspoken balloons above our heads. Imagine if today, every time you engaged with someone, you told the absolute truth. (Wouldn’t that be a treat?) That is the luxury of my illustrations. They dare say and do what I dare not.

EB: This is your debut novel. How was it different from your earlier books? Was it harder to write? Easier?

MGS: Different, much harder, and at the same time effortless as the inevitable can be, like gulping water when you are parched. I loved writing Blue Valise. This arduous discipline took me over. In previous books, the art starred and words filled the supporting roles. In Blue Valise, words reign. I wrote every day for three and a half years, no matter what—through two bouts of surgery and radiation in addition to the demands and rituals of family and daily life maintenance. My Higher Hippo ruled the creative monarchy. Po dubbed me invincible. Suddenly, I could breathe underwater. I could fall through the atmosphere unscathed. The book was my lifeline, and I was determined to outlive its publication.

EB: I really enjoyed some of the wordplay. I hope I can find a chance to use “hippomorphosize.” It seem like you had a lot of fun writing this.

MGS: Drop it into a sentence at your next cocktail party. It’s a very handy word and rolls off the tongue.

I had a ball. I am bored between books—in limbo. But no worries, a massive novel calls my name—a pile of patient folders stacked in a red Chinese box tucked away on the bookshelf in my office whisper daily. Stay turned. This one should keep me alive for the next five years. Words are my favorite playmates. I love my thesaurus—yes, a real book with frayed corners and glued-together pages.

The first draft is the hardest part for me and always daunting, but I have learned to sit still and face the blank slice of paper like a warrior. Once I start editing and playing with the text, I am in heaven.

EB: What are you currently working on?

MGS: Post-Po production and catch-up. I am writing blogs for my new website: mariswebsite.com. They include a recent adventure at the Portland zoo where I fed and petted a rhino and hippo, a story about spirituality and recovery from addiction, the diary of my new found friend, Penelope, our resident peahen who adopted us as her flock, and sequels to earlier blogs about cancer and hip surgery. After that, I will launch my new novel. The title remains top secret.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MGS: Thanks for asking. Po and I had a great time. Join us for tea in the bamboo garden. Po will uncover your mantra. We shall hippomorphosize and dance through the fields.

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An Interview with Midge Raymond, author of MY LAST CONTINENT

Midge Raymond’s debut novel My Last Continent is just out from Scriber. Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, says this: “There is a romance about faraway, desperate places, about isolation, about ice and snow. Add penguins and you have Midge Raymond’s elegant My Last Continent, a love story about the Antarctic and the creatures, humans included, who are at home there. Half adventure, half elegy, and wholly recommended.” Library Journal says it is “Atmospheric and adventurous…the story and vivid writing will keep readers glued to the pages.” And there are rave reviews also from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

Midge Raymond’s writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and Poets & Writers and she is the author of several books, including a book of short stories, Forgetting English, that won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. She has been an instructor at the Richard Hugo House, San Diego Writers Ink, and Grub Street Writers and has been an Adjunct Professor at Boston University. Midge Raymond is also the co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

EB: This is a story about life and personal choices, but also a story about the environment and the consequences of eco-tourism. Which idea came first to you, the story of Deb and Keller or the story of the Antarctic? Or is it even possible to separate the two strands of the book?

MR: I wanted to tell a story about the Antarctic, and the character of Deb came to me quickly and clearly as the best way to tell this story. As a character, she is very much a part of Antarctica herself; she is so passionate about the continent and its future, especially the fate of the penguins. So I would agree that it’s not entirely possible to separate these strands of the book — they are all so closely connected.

EB: I thought the story of Deb and Keller was complicated, yet believable despite the unfamiliar settling. As you wrote them, were you thinking about how to make the characters relatable to the reader?

MR: Not at first. In the beginning, I wrote to get to know them, and it wasn’t until much later that I took a step back to imagine how they’d be perceived to readers. And then I worked on them some more. Their relationship is indeed complicated, and, I imagine, not easily understandable for most people. So I had to make sure that I could portray how they came together and how they make such a good fit for each other, despite all the complications.

EB: You tell the story of the shipwreck and the relationship between Deb and Keller non-sequentially. Why did you choose that particular type of narrative?

MR: I wanted to begin the story with the shipwreck — in part because I hoped to create a sense of tension and engagement in the story, which I really enjoy as a reader. I also wanted to create a sense of inevitability surrounding the shipwreck — this part of the story was inspired by the concerns among naturalists about large cruise ships in Antarctica as tourism increases. As I began to reveal Deb’s backstory within this narrative, I decided to separate out these sections so that they wouldn’t bog down the narrative but allow readers to take a step back every once in a while and learn more, then jump back into the drama of the shipwreck as it unfolds.

EB: Can you tell our readers a little more about the title My Last Continent?

MR: There’s a scene in which Deb tells a passenger, “[T]here are two kinds of people who come to Antarctica. Those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.” While I don’t necessarily share Deb’s view, one of the things I did in the novel was put these two categories of people together, which provided plenty of drama for a novel about our planet’s last frontier.

Antarctica provides this contrast among the individuals and groups who share the ships headed down to the bottom of the world. For many tourists, Antarctica is their seventh continent, the last place left to see. For shipboard naturalists, including researchers, Antarctica offers a chance not only to do their work but to educate tourists, to make the passengers’ last continent more than just something to check off their lists. For Deb and Keller, the continent is their last in the sense that it’s the only place they can truly be themselves, both alone and with each other. So I wanted a title that encompassed many of the themes of the novel, and also one that I hope will be intriguing to readers.

EB: How did you first get interested in the Antarctic and its wildlife?

MR: I had the opportunity to visit Antarctica in 2004, on a small expedition boat much like the Cormorant in the novel, and I became fascinated by the wildlife, particularly the penguins and the people who dedicate their lives to studying them. I learned a great deal about the Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo, and emperor penguins while I was in Antarctica, and two years after that trip, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a penguin census with Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina, which Dee has been studying for thirty years. This experience gave me insights into a new species — the Magellanic penguin — as well as into the lives of scientists, which was very helpful in imagining and writing the novel. And most of all, I became even more passionate about these birds and their fate in a world that is changing around them so rapidly.

EB: What was the research like for this book? Did you have to consult a lot of experts on the environment, maritime disasters and wildlife?

MR: Much of the novel was based on my own experience in Antarctica and from volunteering at the Punta Tombo colony. But of course, I also had to do a lot of additional research, including reading books and watching documentaries. I was working on the novel when the Costa Concordia ran aground in 2012, and all the news surrounding this accident provided a lot of information about maritime disasters.

EB: Coincidentally, or not, it’s the 100th anniversary of Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica expedition. Was that an influence at all?

MR: Absolutely. I’m fascinated by Shackleton’s story, and it inspired me a great deal because it’s not only a tale of the wild and unpredictable Southern Ocean, but also of the resourcefulness and good luck it takes to get out of such situations. He’s an inspiring figure, but I’m also intrigued by the ones who weren’t so lucky — Robert Falcon Scott and his party, for example — because one thing that becomes obvious when you read about explorers is how quickly things can turn around in Antarctica. We are all at the mercy of nature when we’re there, whether today or 100 years ago.

EB: I couldn’t help but read the story of the tourists Kate and Richard as a parallel to Deb and Keller’s story. Any thoughts on this?

MR: I did, in fact, want Richard and Kate to be a parallel for Deb and Keller in the story; as a married couple, they are more domestic and their lives are more settled than the lives of Deb and Keller, who travel to the bottom of the world and only see each other a few times a year. However, as she gets to know Kate, Deb finds similarities in the two relationships and begins to appreciate both the simplicities and complexities of love, no matter what the circumstances. And of course, for Deb and Keller, the continent itself is a big part of who they are as a couple, so in a way, Antarctica is like a third party in their relationship, creating something of a love triangle.

EB: Can you tell us some of your literary influences? Who do you read?

MR: Over the years, I’ve become much more interested in environmental issues, so I have a few favorites when it comes to the environment and animal protection: Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, among others. I also read just about everything by Lionel Shriver and Ann Patchett, whose work I really admire.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I really enjoyed My Last Continent.

MR: Thank you so much, Ed!

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An Interview with Morgan Hunt, author of WE THE PEEPS

Ashland writer Morgan Hunt has written mystery novels, poetry, screenplays, short stories, and magazine articles, including Writer’s Digest. Her Tess Camillo mystery series won a Best Books Award (USA Book News) and a National Indie Excellence Award. Her poems have been published in the California Quarterly, San Diego Mensan, and she’s considered one of the Oregon Poetic Voices. Hunt’s short story, “The Answer Box,” placed as a Finalist in the 2014 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction contest.

Morgan Hunt grew up on the Jersey shore. She is a Navy veteran and a licensed ultralight pilot. She has lived with an aggressive form of breast cancer for more than 15 years.

We sat down to talk about her recently published novel We the Peeps, her first political novel.

EB: You’ve written in a variety of genres, mystery, poetry, short story and more. What prompted you to try your hand at “a political caper and wish fulfillment”?

MH: Well, I’ve been a political junkie for the past 20 years. In 2011 I was weighing whether to write a fourth book in my mystery series or to stretch myself as an author and attempt something more challenging. That summer the House of Representatives let their Stooges off-leash, and the “most powerful nation on earth” wound up with the nonsensical sequestration budget. I wanted to understand the causes of this political chaos. I read 17 text books on political science, civics, the history of the American Revolution, the Beltway insider game, etc. Rightly or wrongly, I convinced myself that by writing a political novel with appealing humor, I’d encourage Americans to think about their government, and thus I’d be part of the solution instead of the problem.

EB: I have to admit, I didn’t see the ending coming. Did you have it in mind all along?

MH: Glad I surprised you, Ed. I’m sure that’s not easy to do! The main concept behind the ending was in my outline all along, although certain details eluded me until I wrote the final chapters.

EB: You had several ordinary – or not so ordinary –folks as protagonists. How did you choose your ensemble?

MH: I wanted to balance the political leanings and geographic backgrounds of the revolutionaries. I also wanted an ethnically diverse cadre to reflect current American culture. A friend suggested I make each character a different Enneagram personality type. When I began the novel, I did so, but that was a launching point, a guideline. By mid-book the characters knew who they were and expressed themselves freely.

EB: You managed to make the story funny without devolving to slapstick and to have a message without being preachy. As a writer, how does one find that sweet spot?

MH: I’m both humbled and happy to hear that the balance I tried to achieve worked. As for finding that sweet spot– a dowsing stick or Geiger counter might help.

EB: Tell us about the title. I notice that the cover has a little yellow peep on it. What’s the symbolism?

MH: The title is simply a pun that stretches (much like marshmallow) between a popular American candy and the familiar phrase “We the People.” After I finished the first two chapters, I took a short break. Using PhotoShop I modified the Presidential seal by substituting a yellow Peep for the American eagle. The resulting image conveyed whimsy, humor, and politics, so it felt right. I asked the graphic artist to incorporate it into the cover design.

EB: What was the hardest part about writing We the Peeps?

MH: Trying to nail down my plot before the news cycle stole it! Several times I’d put something in the plot outline that then happened in real life. It’s nerve-wracking to turn on TV and realize you have to rewrite several chapters because what was previously confined to your imagination has just been reported on cable news!

EB: Have you sent the book to any local or national politicians?

MH: I’ve sent it to several political organizations such as No Labels and Represent.us. I figured actual politicians would be too busy to read anything other than position papers and polls for a while.

EB: What are some of your favorite political novels?

MH: I’m a huge fan of Christopher Buckley. I particularly enjoyed They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Supreme Courtship, and Boomsday. I also liked a novel called The Woody by Peter Lefcourt. If we open the question to favorite political fiction (v. novels), I’d include the films Dave, American President, and Wag the Dog.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Don’t forget to vote.

MH: Thank you for this opportunity. And as Peeps revolutionary Glenda would say, “Vote? Hell, yes! That’s what empowered democracy is all about.”

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An Interview with Nils Nilsson

Nils J. Nilsson is the Kumagai Professor of Engineering (Emeritus) in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Nilsson received his PhD degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford in 1958, spent twenty-three years at the Artificial Intelligence Center of SRI International and returned to Stanford in 1985 where he taught until 1995. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays on artificial intelligence and he was one of the leaders of the research team behind Shakey, a robot that reasoned from sensor data about its environment to react to dynamic worlds, plan courses of action, and learn from experience.

Professor Nilsson is a past-president and Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. He is also a recipient of the IEEE “Neural-Network Pioneer” award, the IJCAI “Research Excellence” award, and the AAAI “Distinguished Service” award. Nils Nilsson and his wife, Grace Abbott, live at the Rogue Valley Manor in Medford, Oregon.

We talked about his 2014 book Understanding Beliefs, part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series.

EB: What prompted you to write Understanding Beliefs?

NN: This short book has a long history. I originally set out to write about how we know things. I first wrote an unpublished draft entitled How Are We To Know?. It was in the form of a dialog—actually a “quadralog” among a philosophy professor, a student, a robot designer, and a robot. I still have an online copy of it. But I learned a lot by writing this draft. Mainly I decided I wanted a full treatment of reality (is there such?) and truth (I don’t think there is such). I was informed in all of this by thinking of how robots acquire knowledge and beliefs. We humans, I maintain, are like robots (very complex ones to be sure), and therefore our attitudes toward beliefs (our “meta-beliefs”) should be similar to those of robots. Robots have no privileged access to reality; they only have their perceptual mechanisms and what their designers program into them. I think we are in the same boat.

EB: What are the biggest mistakes that people make in thinking about their beliefs?

NN: People are resistant to changing their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. They think many of their beliefs are “true” and place too much confidence in them.

EB: You mention that beliefs are like a fortress. Why is it so hard for us to change our beliefs?

NN: There are several reasons. To change one belief means that you might have to change others in order to keep them all consistent. Some of these others are deep beliefs that help define us. Another reason is that we think some beliefs are true. One doesn’t fiddle with “truth.” Another reason is that some beliefs are comforting—we’d like them to be “true.” For example, some people believe in life-after-death–it’s comforting.

EB:
What accounts for conspiracy theories?

NN: People who believe in conspiracies might be having a case of borderline paranoia. Or, beliefs about conspiracies might support other beliefs. For example, believing that JFK was killed by orders of the CIA supports a belief that the CIA runs things in this country. Some people believe in many linked conspiracies.

EB: Is it possible to perceive or access reality? Or is our experience with the world always through some model?

NN: I don’t think we can access reality directly. We access it only through our perceptual apparatus (augmented by scientific instruments, etc.), and our models usually influence what comes through. In fact, without these models, we couldn’t make sense of our perceptions. And what would it mean to access reality directly anyway? Reality doesn’t come equipped with tags describing what’s in it. Our models supply the tags, which we have invented to make sense of reality.

EB: What does your work suggest about the way we ought to be teaching science?

NN: I think my chapter on the scientific method would be a good start. But, I would want to expand it, revise it, and strengthen it if I were to try to write textbook on how to teach science.

EB: Any final thoughts?

NN: I think a lot of philosophy is hung up with notions of truth and notions about what reality is. My view of these matters simplifies things a lot, I think. Some philosophers agree with me, Daniel Dennett for example.

EB:
Thanks for talking with us.

NN:
You are most welcome!

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Armed Service Editions and the Birth of 20th Century US Paperback Publishing

A guest post by David Vonnegut Chambers

The creation and distribution of the Armed Service Editions (ASE) paperback books to soldiers fighting in World War II represents an important period of publishing history that benefitted not only US publishing houses, but the general war effort and the mental health of soldiers on the front lines. The ASEs distributed throughout the 1940s signify the beginning point of the paperback book industry in North America. By the end of the war, the ASE’s physical role in the second World War (WWII) had solidified the paperback book as a tested and economical format for future US book publishing, but it had also created a new white, male readership, positioning many soldiers for success in university and future careers back home.

David Vonnegut Chambers is a writer and photographer from southern Oregon. You can find his work at www.davidvonnegutchambers.com.

Historical Overview

While other global militaries involved in WWII understood the importance of reading material and its affect upon soldier morale, many of these foreign powers involved in the war within European theaters (British, Germans, Soviets) failed to provide an affordable, portable alternative to the hardcover book during the war. But the United States military created hip-pocket sized paperbacks to provide ideas, education, and mental reprieve from war.[1] It was hard for the US government, at the outset of the war, to conceive of books as an integral part of wartime strategy.[2] But, by 1943, the United States Army Library Services (ALS) had begun to collaborate with the Council on Books in Wartime (an advisory group to the federal government composed of publishing industry leaders and professionals).

Thus, between 1943 and 1946, using an adapted rotary-press, the collaborative effort published 122 million copies of 1,322 paper-cover titles, specifically designed to fit inside the pockets of a G.I.’s uniform.[3] It was described by the Saturday Evening Post in 1945 as “the greatest book-publishing project in history,”[4] and it was the first instance when a nation put forth such a monumental effort to publish and distribute portable books for its military service. Before this, the Victory Book Campaign (VBC) had collected thousands of old, unwanted books in a monumentally sincere but unwieldy effort to provide US soldiers with reprieve from the mental and physical rigors of war.[5] Current scholarship has treated ASEs in the second World War as an isolated event, and according to Christopher P. Loss, this approach failed because it focused on the financial interests of the publishing industry while failing to account for the ideological role of book distribution to soldiers.[6] The creation of portable reading material for soldiers overseas was a technological and social innovation that not only helped the US to win the war, but helped to bring US soldiers home again after victory.

And, of course, ASEs did contribute to a budding paperback industry. In fact, it was the problem of soldier morale that led the sudden creation of a paperback book industry in the US. Before the problem of soldier morale overseas, neither the ALS nor the Council had truly possessed “the ability to transform copyrighted classic and contemporary bestsellers into portable paperback editions.[7] The distribution of ASEs was just as economically important for the future publishing industry (because it allowed prior experience and a degree of clout) as it was for US foreign policy and the national ideologies which celebrated the political and cultural differences between fascist, aggressive states and the US model of democracy.[8] Never before had a publishing endeavor covered such ground, and never before had books been ideologically positioned as “weapons in the war of ideas.”[9] At home, by the time the Council had begun working with the US military branches, the initiative also provided a limited form of “democracy in action,”[10] because the publishing industry was forced to put its reputation on the line in order to amend a Voting Act that had hampered book distribution with several months of outright censorship (an act sponsored by Senator Taft). All in all, however, the monumental publishing project—started by the VBC and expanded upon by the Council—had a core purpose: US soldiers wanted and needed reading material. The delivery of paperback books provided mental and emotional support for those on the front lines. One American soldier wrote to the Council while stationed in Italy, explaining that “there are many times when the only entertainment, relaxation, and mental stimulation is reading, so you can see how welcome the ‘Armed Services’ books are.”[11]

Distribution and Readership

Paperback books seem today like an obvious idea, an easy solution for the G.I. abroad: the physicality of war necessitated the removal of all “unnecessary”[12] items from soldiers’ packs in an attempt to keep them lighter and less cumbersome. Aside from the practicality of portable books, the real driving force behind paperback book printing and distribution to troops was money-savings and the seemingly democratic virtues of the mass-production of information. In 1939, less than two hundred thousand paperbacks were sold in the US.[13] Pocket Books was the first US publishing house to demonstrate that paperback bookselling could be profitable: this was achieved by printing smaller volumes that required less paper.[14] The Council on Books in Wartime (The Council) eventually collaborated with the US military to create specially-sized, foldable, pocket paperbacks.[15] The two-up style in which the books were printed, in two small sizes, with double columns and light paper (something dictated by material and technological constraints), required that the Council and the ALS collate titles more or less the same size and the same length in order to insure printing uniformity. Distribution, something that had plagued the ALS and the VBC in early years of the war,[16] was made easier by the uniform size and relatively light weight of paperback titles. Covers were specially-designed as well, in order to ensure soldiers that their copies were the same as the editions that their friends and family might read back home. The gaudy design featured images of the original hardcover, and also included a special form of rhetoric on the back, often a summary of the narrative in connection with its patriotic values, and how these coincided with those of the author.[17]

But titles varied widely. There was much more than just fiction. The Council included selections of history, science, philosophy, racier titles (albeit not racy at all),[18] as well as a slice of more “serious” literature, as decreed by the Council.[19] Ninety-nine editions of the ASEs were reprinted because they were so popular.[20] There was censorship by the army only when the leadership encountered something that seemed to “infringe” upon democratic ideals. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, as an example, was not included in either of the Council’s “long” or “short” lists.[21] Soldiers’ ASE paperbacks, following their distribution, were prized possessions: they were often traded, split, or swapped.[22] They were always cherished in moments of peace and quiet. Many authors received hundreds and even thousands of letters in response to their work.[23] In the case of Willa Cather, the ASEs cemented the author’s popularity well after her own death.[24]

While for many returning veterans the ASEs had only provided a distraction from the horrors of war, many soldiers who had read the paperbacks voraciously became a part of a specific, new male readership in a distinct period of American literary and cultural history. The Council, for its myriad motivations, had known how important the availability of knowledge was for not only troop morale but also for the course of the war itself. They could not have known, however, the change to come in the US education system following the close of the war, or how the returning soldiers would play their part in a changing model of education and a swelling of the middle class.[25] But the Council and the ALS overcame shortages of material, federal obstacles, and the task of distribution, knowing that the narratives they were shipping overseas were truly indeed “instrument(s) of power.”[26] And the soldiers were grateful: they all had a story to tell about the ASE publishing project, and most of these stories had a similar tone—“these little books are a great thing … they take you away.”[27] One soldier claimed that the distribution of ASEs in Europe to American serviceman was like “making it rain in the desert.”[28] Amidst the horrors of war, these small books were not only instruments of power, but instruments of salvation, of a sort.

Redistribution, Post-War, and the G.I. Bill

As fighting in Europe came to a close, soldiers were ready to go home. 400,000 troops were left in Europe to oversee the transition of power. Of the 3.4 million men who had fought on the European continent, however, 3.1 million were destined for the South Pacific theater. The islands were infamous, and most soldiers were less than overjoyed about their re-deployment. Morale began to suffer again, and so the army and the navy turned once more to the Council for redistribution in the years following 1945.[29] Distribution had increased that year, from 20 million books to 50 million books, but even that amount was deemed not enough. Soldiers were “starved” for titles, according to one officer in the Special Services Division (charged with, among other things, the triage of soldier morale). This same officer observed that there “never seems to be enough.”[30] One Lieutenant Colonel Trautman had noted that “when a soldier with a monthly pay of $55 is willing to pay 500 francs or 10 American dollars for the privilege of being next in line to read a particular Council Book they are pretty scarce.”[31] Trautman, on a visit to a platoon of combat engineers stationed in the South Pacific, had observed himself how precious remaining, readable ASEs were. This certain platoon had a collection of only ten ASEs, and the commander had ordered that men were to read together, in groups, so as to “reduce the wear and tear of multiple handlings.”[32] Facing down a lack of funding and an overwhelming demand, reprinting was ordered (sometimes numbering around 155,000 copies per print run), and the ASE paperbacks were created for the first time without stapled covers.[33]

As the American forces closed in around Japan, soldiers serving both in the South Pacific and Europe began to ponder their futures. As Molly Guptil Manning put quite plainly, “some men wondered whether it [home] would measure up to the ideals they had projected onto it.”[34] The idea of home, known for so long only by depictions that had provided sustenance overseas via countless narratives, was becoming unsure. While some soldiers simply wished to return to the same life they had left behind, some soldiers were especially concerned about future employment opportunities. During training, many enlisted men had enrolled in courses using “mathematics, science, and technical books,”[35] and they did not wish for this knowledge to go unused. While novels in the immediate post-war years did not provide fresh reading material for those still stationed overseas, troops in transition enjoyed a selection of new, practical titles intended to address the return to life in North America. Some examples include Darrel and Frances Huff’s Twenty Careers of Tomorrow, and Campbell and Bedford’s You and Your Future Job, printed at the behest of the Army.[36] Returning veterans were interested in a range of potential futures, including legal professions, entrepreneurial pursuits, and jobs that enabled economic growth: Huff’s Twenty Careers of Tomorrow addressed everything from working in plastics, fabrics, and recycling, to careers in publishing, television and radio, and the automobile industry.[37] Veterans were also, for the most part, critically aware of advances in medical technology, and many of them were inspired by select ASEs to pursue a career in medicine.[38] As the war drew to a close, the demand for ASEs dropped to around 15 percent of wartime ASE production.[39] By 1947, ASE production of fresh titles had ceased. Veterans and soldiers still serving active duty began to hoard and collect their favorite titles.[40]

President Roosevelt began planning to address the accessibility of higher education in 1944. College enrollment was something reserved for the upper middle class or the elite in US society at the time. The American Legion, a veteran’s organization, was responsible for drafting the “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act,” which became the “G.I. Bill of Rights” by June 22, 1944, when it was passed unanimously in the House and the Senate.[41] The bill provided counseling services, unemployment and disability benefits, as well as home and business loans, and two years of college or job training.[42] White men were the group that benefitted the most from the G.I. Bill, whereas women generally benefitted the least from the legislation.[43] The nonwhite, minority experience with the G.I. Bill was obviously different than that of white men, because of the segregated, racist nature of US society at the time. Nonwhite veterans often encountered the same “barriers to advancement”[44] that they had encountered before, even after enjoying the positive financial and educational benefits of the G.I. Bill back home. This topic requires its own paper, but scholars have so far concurred that black veterans who obtained college education through the GI Bill were more likely to become involved with the “struggles through which civil rights were won” in the US during the later 20th century.[45]

Veterans were successful in college, but their attendance was slow to begin.[46] Their eventual success stories would bolster the middle class and actually change the face of university and college education in the US. This breaking down of preconceptions about the eliteness of college attendance was one of the effects of the G.I. Bill, and it was of course due to the fact that many veterans were eager and well-read. Many veterans of this new, male readership were even excited enough about reading and writing in immediate post-war years that they began seeking the opinions of the Council with regard to their various book proposals, which were often centered on personal experience in wartime overseas.[47] This new, white male readership began challenging “prewar assumptions of who could benefit from a college education.”[48] Advertising in the immediate post-war years even reflects this shift in perception about college enrollment, but by the 1950s, advertising had shifted again to focus on family structure and consumer culture. But the role that veterans played in shaping higher education in the US cannot be understated. Images of the G.I. succeeding in a college environment provided the “average” American citizen with a new model (a more accessible model) of “social, economic, and cultural mobility”[49] that would ultimately foster greater civic engagement. Universities in the US began to transition more and more towards practical and vocational curriculum, and this was due, at least in part, to the demands of veterans studying and working within higher education.[50] The paperback book would continue to play an important role for publishing houses and a wide range of institutions within the US, and these small books are even more prolific in their availability today. Randall Stewart, in 1959 (then Chairman at Vanderbilt), probably captured their novelty the best: “You want to gather them up by the armfuls, put them on your shelves, and start reading (or re-reading).”[51]

In conclusion, it is important to grasp the importance of ASEs within multiple contexts. ASE creation and distribution represented timely technological and economic innovation by the publishing industry, and it also set a unique precedent of literary cooperation between the private sector, the public, and the US military. Not only did paperbacks take veterans “away” from the horrors of war—the portable books also helped to bring them home again. This appreciation for the written word, for the book, provided a solid base from which many white, male veterans could access vocational and educational resources. In a way, the paperback book has had no small role in helping along the development of a productive, civically engaged middle class, of which veterans comprised a healthy percentage.

Bibliography

    Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

    Chinery, Mary. “Wartime Fictions: Willa Cather, the Armed Service Editions, and the Unspeakable Second World War.” Cather Studies 6 (2006): 285-96. Web.

    Clark, Daniel A. “ ‘The Two Joes Meet. Joe College, Joe Veteran’: The G. I. Bill, College Education, and Postwar American Culture.” History of Education Quarterly 38.2 (1998): 165-189. Web.

    Hayes, Kevin J. “How G.I. Joe Read Stephen Crane.” Stephen Crane Studies 9.1 (2000): 9-14. Web.

    Mettler, Suzanne. Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

    Lehman, Edward W. “Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation, by Suzanne Mettler.” Book Review. American Journal of Sociology 113.2 (2007): 581-584. Web.

    Loss, Christopher P. “Reading between Enemy Lines: Armed Services Editions and World War II.” The Journal of Military History 67.3 (2003): 811-834. Web.

    Manning, Molly Guptil. When Books Went to War. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. Print.

    Stewart, Randall. “Paperbacks.” College English, 20.7 (1959): 365-367. Web.

Notes

  1. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading between Enemy Lines: Armed Service Editions and World War II.” The Journal of Military History 67.3 (2003): 812.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions: Willa Cather, the Armed Services Editions, and the Unspeakable Second World War,” Cather Studies, 6 (2006): 288.

  6. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 813.

  7. Ibid., 825.

  8. Ibid., 828.

  9. Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014): graphical front-matter.

  10. Christoper P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 832.

  11. Ibid., 118.

  12. Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War, 61.

  13. Ibid., 62.

  14. Ibid., 63.

  15. Ibid., 76.

  16. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 824.

  17. Kevin J. Hayes, “How G.I. Joe Read Stephen Crane,” 10.

  18. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions,” 291.

  19. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 829.

  20. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions,” 292.

  21. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 830.

  22. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions,” 292.

  23. Ibid., 293.

  24. Ibid., 294.

  25. It is unfortunate that I am able in this paper only to generalize about white, mainstream North American culture and experience. I have chosen not to delve into the specifics of the nonwhite minority experience in this period, though any complete examination of male readership after WWII would require this.

  26. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 40.

  27. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 833.

  28. Molly Guptil Manning, “When Books Went to War,” 118.

  29. Ibid., 162.

  30. Ibid., 164.

  31. Ibid., 162.

  32. Ibid., 163.

  33. Ibid., 168.

  34. Ibid., 170.

  35. Ibid., 171.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., 172.

  39. Ibid., 178.

  40. Ibid., 179.

  41. Ibid., 184.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Edward W. Lehman, Book Review, 583.

  44. Suzanne Mettler, Soldiers to Citizens, 105.

  45. Ibid., 143.

  46. Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War, 185.

  47. Ibid., 173.

  48. Daniel A. Clark, “The Two Joes Meet,” 175.

  49. Daniel A. Clark, “The Two Joes Meet,” 178.

  50. Ibid., 177.

  51. Randall Stewart, “Paperbacks,” 365.

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An Interview with Lisa Sandlin

Lisa Sandlin was born in Beaumont, Texas, and grew up in oil-refinery air, sixty miles from the Gulf of Mexico. She raised a son in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then moved to Nebraska where’s she has taught for the better part of twenty years.

Her work has earned an NEA Fellowship, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Jesse Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, story-of-the-year awards from Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Crazy Horse. Her story collections are The Famous Thing About Death, Message to the Nurse of Dreams, In the River Province, and You Who Make the Sky Bend . The Do-Right, her first novel, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and Johnny Temple, the editor of USA Noir had this to say ““Thomas Phelan and Delpha Wade are unforgettable characters as gritty as the ramshackle office they inhabit. But their grit has soul, and plenty of it.”

We sat down to talk about The Do-Right.

EB: Delpha Wade spent fourteen years for in prison for killing a man who raped her and is starting a new life. Tom Phelan is a Vietnam veteran and neophyte detective looking for a secretary. As they each rebuild their lives, they solve a series of unusual cases in Beaumont, Texas, in 1973. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

LS: I didn’t get my first tenure-track academic job until I was 45. I sent stacks of applications, bought a $300 gray flannel biz-suit, went to MLA conferences waiting for interviews in hotel rooms (sounds racy, doesn’t it? It isn’t.), and continued to work adjunct for $10K a year. Under-employment became such an issue that frustration sank in deeply. In writing, I follow where my subconscious leads, and clearly it had a lot to say about joblessness and starting over—because both characters aim to build a new life, and they carry differing amounts of anxiety about being able to do so.

EB: Tell us about the title. Why The Do-Right?

LS: That’s a colloquialism meaning “jail” or “prison” that I heard from my friend, a witty deputy sheriff in Georgia; as in “We sent him to the do-right.” (He also informed me about the designation “ticket-proof,” which he was—and that he owns only 12 guns because “more are gratuitous.”) Delpha’s served 14 years in prison. But now, on the outside, she’s wrestling with doing right according to her own lights. She carries hatred and resentment against those who hurt her, and she doesn’t necessarily buy the forgiveness-and-closure prescription.

EB: I confess that I had never thought of the 1970s as a noirish time, but you made it seem as gritty and foreign to me as the depression era. What prompted you to set the story in that decade?

LS: Simply, because I was young then, and I wanted the energy of youth. But thirtyish youth, not crazy-head teenage or blithe 20 year-old youth. Though I was raised white collar—my dad was a chemical engineer with Mobil Oil—once I was in college and after, I spent twenty years not even within spitting distance of that economic level. Memorable lines from those years piled up. Asked about a dramatic scar on his throat that descends onto his chest, a young kitchen worker points out quietly, “It all on my forward side.”

EB: Does the feel of crime change, decade by decade?

LS: It changes writer by writer. Agatha Christie had to use the drawing room settings and social classes she knew. Dashiell Hammett portrayed the private eye / Pinkerton man cleaning up whole corrupt towns. (Watch how he kills characters; everyone gets a unique death description). Raymond Chandler, famously, gave us a dark and lush L.A. and shady people, rich and non-rich alike. Mario Puzo stunned the public with Mafia ruthlessness. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins not only solves mysterious crimes but also negotiates post-WWII America as a black man and a real estate owner on the down low. Dennis Lehane describes awful crimes that we all know happen, whose victims may find no help or redemption. Maybe it’s that some crimes, because of memorable perpetrators, seem to belong more to one decade than to another. Bankrobbing, Bonnie and Clyde, the 30s. Home invasion, Starkweather, the Manson Family, 50s and 60s. Heroin in Harlem, the 50s on. Drugs, 60s on. Murder, timeless. Alas.

EB: What sort of research did the novel require—about the 1970s, prison life, the detective trade, Beaumont, Texas, …

LS: I have a book on the detective trade, I read some library books on prison life. As far as Beaumont and the 1970s, I just had to double check geography, history, and phrases as I went along, since I had life experience there. (For instance, I asked a group of FB friends my age: Do you remember using the expression “Eat s*** and die” back in the 70s? One man answered that he had that on his helmet in Vietnam.) However, a whole lot of The Do-Right’s material is pure imagination, and the book probably has some howlers, to those in the know.

EB: There are two main characters in The Do-Right. Which one was tougher for you to write?

LS: Phelan, since he’s male. I have a mainline to Delpha.

EB: The relationship between Delpha and Isaac seemed important to her, to him and to his mother, and it seemed to fit the plot and character well. What prompted you to include that?

LS: Good question. After the isolation of prison, the dearth of choices, Delpha would be longing for some touch. I didn’t believe she’d choose a man who’d want to order her around or who’d put her into a public, complicated (to her) social environment that would require her to interact with lots of new people. Isaac doesn’t challenge her in these ways, and he himself has a need that speaks to hers.

EB: You have written award-winning short stories in the past. How is a novel different?

LS: So much more shape to keep in your head. I literally resorted to 3 x 5 cards to shuffle and sort scenes, though there’s a program that does this for you. You have to worry about the dead accidentally springing back to life. Yikes! You have to worry about scenes that cannot be consecutive because they don’t follow emotionally. There’s a time-passing aspect for the characters that has to be matched with real-life events such as Watergate and Hank Aaron’s homerun count and with fictional events.

EB: Will we see more of Miss Wade and Mr. Phelan?

LS: I’m working on that!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LS: I’m so happy for your interest. Thank you, Ed.

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Tell Us About Your Book Group


Ashland, Oregon, is rumored to be home to over two hundred book groups—that’s one for every hundred residents. We think that’s fantastic and want to learn more about who’s reading and who’s reading what.

So tell us about your book club. Send an email (edbattistella[AT-SIGN]gmail-dot-com), a Facebook message to Literary Ashland or post a reply below.

Oh, and we won’t share and information about you or your group. But we will summarize what we’ve learned at next year’s 2016 Ashland Book and Author Festival. Here’s the quick and easy survey.

1. Does your book group have a name? (and, if so, what is that name):

2. How large is your group?

3. What sort of books do you read?

4. Would you be interested in a follow up blog interview or radio interview about your group?

5. Do you ever invite authors to your book group?

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Literary Ashland Events for October

Thursday October 8, 7 pm Chris Scolfield, author of The Shark Curtain, will be reading at the Schneider Museum of Art.

Saturday, October 10, Southern Oregon Willamette Writers will host author Bill Sullivan for a morning lecture on writing for a living and an afternoon workshop on beating writer’s block.

Wednesday, October 14, Southern Oregon University will host the writer and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva at 7pm in SOU’s Music Recital Hall.

Thursday, October 15, at 5:30 PM in the Hannon Library Meese Room, Harry Fuller of the Klamath Bird Observatory will speak on Birds and Climate Change: The Canary in the Coal Mine.

Monday, October 19, Chautauqua Poets and Writers will feature Kwame Dawes at Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre, at 7:30 pm.

Friday, October 23, Friday Wine and Words at Weisinger’s Winery at 6 pm, will feature M J Daspit, reading from her book The Little Red Book of Holiday Homicides.

Friday, October 23, on Literary Ashland Radio/KSKQ, Michael Niemann will interview James Phillips about his book Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience.

Friday, October 30, 7:30-9:00 Oregon Poet Laureate Peter Sears will give a public reading at the Ashland Public Library.

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An Interview with Tod Davies, author of The Lizard Princess

photo by Alex Cox

TOD DAVIES is the author of two cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered and three tales in The History of Arcadia series: Snotty Saves the Day, Lily the Silent, and the just-released The Lizard Princess.

Tod Davies is also the editor/publisher of Exterminating Angel Press and Exterminating Angel Magazine. She lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their two dogs, Gray and Pearl, in the alpine valley of Colestin, Oregon.

Tod Davies is a proud member of the Southern Oregon Literary Alliance, and you can meet her at the Ashland Book and Author Festival, October 3 at the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University.

EB: I really enjoyed The Lizard Princess—and all of the Arcadia tales. But the three books in the Arcadia series seem to have very different audiences.

TD: Sheer illusion, Ed. Well, yes, they’re meant to LOOK like that. First a children’s book, Snotty Saves the Day, though with footnotes that make you think, “Wait a minute maybe there’s more here than meets the eye.” And then a YA novel, Lily the Silent, complete with teenage love story and romantic illustrations. And now the “literary” novel, The Lizard Princess. But really, in my head, the audience is the intelligent fifteen year old in all of us. I was that fifteen year old. At sixty, I am STILL that fifteen year old. By which I mean, the reader who wants to know answers to the great questions: “Who am I? What are we doing here? What should we do? What should I do?” The History of Arcadia books are meant, among other things, to be a genre questioning series. What if we grouped books by their values, by what issues they wrestle with, rather than artificially by age? I personally get more out of Madeleine L’Engle’s “children’s” books, and Ursula LeGuin’s “young adult” books than out of most contemporary literary “adult” fiction. Not all thank goodness. But an awful lot of it.

EB: What’s the attraction of fantasy and fairy tales to you as a writer? And do you think it’s the same attraction for readers?

TD: Fantasy and fairy tales express desire for answers to just the questions above, don’t they? They deal with issues of good and evil; they do not pretend, as we do too often in the modern world, that good and evil are ‘relative’ concepts, ideas that don’t really exist in the ‘real’ world. They get in and dig up our true desires as human beings, the wonderfully irrational ones as well as the tidily rational. They are a door to further truths about ourselves not necessarily accessible in the accepted discourse. And I think all serious readers hunger for those truths of imagination. I know I do.

Further—really great fantasy writing is about imagining a better world here and now. Tolkien. LeGuin. Octavia Butler. Imagining what may not be working here, and fantasizing about what would work better. What would satisfy desire. What would make us a better world.

I loved what a writer for Bitch magazine called this kind of writing: “Visionary Fiction.” That’s what I like to think I write. My husband always wanted to know why on earth I was writing fantasy, then, after reading Lily the Silent, he said, “I understand now. You’re using fantasy to engage with what you think is wrong with our world…and what could be right.” I got up at the dinner table and kissed him when I heard that. It’s more than that, of course. But that’s not a bad place to start.

EB: The stories and relationships are wonderfully complex. How do you keep it all straight? I feel like I need a genealogical chart.

Young Princess Sophy (art by Mike Madrid)

TD: I know, I know. Mike Madrid, who designs and illustrates the books, keeps wanting to make one—but we can’t just yet, since there are some surprises still to come in who parented who, in who is related to who and in what way. It’s a whole world out there that rushed in on me, and all these relationships just keep tumbling out. No lie. When I say in the books that the other world sends them to me, and is trying to communicate with our own, I’m really not kidding. All these people are alive. And moving around. Falling in love. Having children. Making choices. All these stories…it makes my head spin. I can only pray I manage to simplify enough so that the reader isn’t confused. Yikes.

EB:
Much of your recent work has been about food narratives and fairy tales. Are these interests related in some way? I wonder if food writing is a kind of fantasy or if fairy tales are a kind of ethnography. What do you think?

TD: Oh, definitely, definitely. All of the above. But even more: my food writing comes from exactly the same place as the fairy tales. The place that says: what do we really want? What really makes us happy as human beings? How can we work on making ourselves and our loved ones happier, and then, after that, the people around us? How can one individual finding out who they are and what they truly desire lead to greater good, greater happiness, for a wider group of people?

Of course food is the way you can meditate on these questions THREE TIMES A DAY. And at least once a day through wine! And all day…and all night…through imagination. Through Fairy Tales, or, even better, as Maria Tatar renamed them, Wonder Tales.

EB: I’ve been reading lately about the history of the Grimms’ fairy tales. The Grimms wrote that “Wherever the tales still exist, they continue to live in such a way that nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude. People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way. And they take pleasure in them without having any reason. This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous.” Would you agree?

TD: How awful to disagree with two men I admire so completely. I do sort of agree that “nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude” (except—ahem!—maybe the Grimm brothers and a few generations of critics). But I can’t agree that people love them without reason, because they are ‘habitual’. It seems to me you have to ask why they became habitual in the first place! My feeling is they are part of the warp and woof of life, and loved for that reason. The custom of storytelling is so marvelous because it opens a door to the great depths beneath the surface of our every day existence…our cultural consciousness, as it were. This domain is where needs, desires, deep feelings that have been pushed aside in our framing of the present culture still pulse with life. Storytelling—properly done—opens the door to these, in the form of symbols that can be taken in by us, personifying vaguely felt truths, playing with our present beliefs, and perhaps finally taking solid form as a new idea we may not have been ready for until the time it is most needed. And Goddess knows, we need some of those new ideas now.

EB:
Who are your inspirations as a fantasist?

TD: Ursula K. LeGuin is just it for me, for all sorts of reasons. Her imaginings always come from the position of the true Wonder Tale: what if? What if things were different? What if we knew what truly matters? Her images pack human desires and possibilities into images it’s almost impossible not to love. J.R.R. Tolkien, for the same reason. C.S. Lewis.

I’ll tell you an odd story. I was in a hospital in Headington, which is a suburb of Oxford, in England, having an operation. And as I went under the anesthesia, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, wearing 1950’s business suits, walked across the hospital floor and bent benevolently over me, reassuring me that all would be well. I woke up after and told the doctors they needed to patent that formula! But here’s the very weird thing: years later I found out that both Tolkien and Lewis had lived walking distance from that hospital in the ‘50s. Isn’t that odd? No wonder I trust the truths of imagination!

EB: The illustrations add a lot to the story for me. How do you decide on the proper amount of illustration to go along with a story? How much is too much or not enough?

TD: The illustrations for both The Lizard Princess and for Lily the Silent are by EAP creative director Mike Madrid, and the best thing I can ever do is trust his taste and his inspiration. He always seems to have a total grasp of what I’m tearing my hair out trying to express. It never ceases to astonish me how intuitively he plans the illustrations to go with the text.

That said, I don’t want you to think there are no disagreements. Where would creative activity be without disagreements? But when it comes to the illustrations—both the number and the type—if there’s a major disagreement, the illustrator wins. I think that’s fair!

EB: On a totally different note, which Arcadian characters are your favorites? I have to admit a certain fascination with Devindra Vale and Aspern Grayling.

TD: Oh, gosh, I love them all. Sophia, of course, is my not-so-secret favorite. And Leef, her lemur. I love writing Livia, because she’s so thoroughly out front about what she thinks, and it’s not necessarily for the good of the world, those thoughts. Along with you, I love Devindra: she’s so rationally brilliant and femininely wise at the same time. And speaking of Aspern Grayling, I … well, we’ll have to see what comes next with Aspern and Arcadia.

EB: What’s next in The History of Arcadia Series? I’m hoping there is more in store for us.

Aspern Graying (art by Mike Madrid)

TD: Aha! I have to tell now! The next book is written by Aspern Grayling, my endlessly charming and self-regarding villain. It’s his Report to Megalopolis, an NSA style dossier of facts about Arcadia, for the use of the Megalopolitan Council of Four (which pays for the report with a generous grant for which Aspern is properly grateful, of course). As people inadvertently do, he’ll tell his own story as he tells his version of Arcadia’s.

After that, we’ve got planned a Megalopolis/Arcadia cookbook. One side filled with recipes from Megalopolis (calories counted! measurements made clear to the nth degree!), then you flip it over, and there is a cookbook from Arcadia. That will be major fun for me, and maybe make it a little more plain what food and fantasy have in common. After all, they both nourish us, the one feeding the body, and the other the soul.

Both, by the way, going very well with a glass of wine!


EB:
Thanks for talking with us.

TD: Thank YOU, Literary Ashland. And now, what about that glass of wine you promised me?

EB: On the way.

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