This is the summer of Harper Lee, in our house and all over. My wife brought home Go Set a Watchman, Lee's new-published novel that was a very early draft of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, the most-read American novel of all time, along with the Lee biography Mockingbird and a copy of the classic novel itself, even though I’d told her I’ve already got one. (She wanted her own.) So I pulled out my copy and read To Kill a Mockingbird again, this time paying attention ... to the story.
It’s hard to imagine this was over 20 years ago: I was a freelance writer (then as now), and I was pretty beaten-down. I’d spent 10 years on a nonfiction book, a personal story of travel and conversation in Muslim Asia, that had been rejected 75 times and would never be published. In the many rejection letters I had received, some of which were quite thoughtful, one response had stayed with me. I needed to tell a better story.
This seemed good advice, but what to do with it?
A chapter book for kids came out in 1955 about a four-year-old girl, in an unexceptional but caring white family, who wants to make noise, be noticed, and have picture books read to her over and over and over about steam shovels. The third-person novel is told largely from the viewpoint of the girl’s dutiful older sister, whose name is Beatrice but whom everyone calls Beezus, and who is constantly being driven crazy by the noisy, creative, impulsive Ramona.
Ramona became famous.
There’s a type of story that’s really hard to write, and that as a reader I often look for when I don’t feel well or I’m struggling — and that’s the comic novel. I love Carl Hiassen’s riotous eco-morality tales set in Florida, for both YA and adult readers; I’ve enjoyed a couple of Christopher Moore’s contemporary novels, especially Fluke; and, as I’m about to drive from Vermont to New York City to see my agent, I’m overjoyed to have downloaded Dave Barry’s new novel Insane City. But the comic novelist I still love most is the late, legendary Englishman P.G. Wodehouse.
Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands?
Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor and writer about evolutionary psychology, asks this in his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal, in the chapter “Ink People Change the World." He has just described how research shows we’re influenced, a lot more than we normally realize, by the fictions we absorb — not just by books but by sitcoms, films and so forth.
Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all-encompassing and not quite palpable.
This is from The Storytelling Animal, a relatively new (2012) book by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, that is thought-sparking on a variety of story-related topics — why and how we dream, how children live so naturally in storyland, and why in the world we are storytelling animals. The survival value of fiction isn’t obvious, after all, but it must exist: humans have been immersed in story at all times, all over the world and in all cultures. And still today.
I've been serializing a chapter from my first, never-published book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey into Islamic Asia. In Dubai in early 1981, having left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write about it, I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, a British vessel that ran from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. This is the last of seven segments drawn from the chapter I wrote about traveling on the Dwarka from Dubai to Karachi.
At evening I’m standing by the rail, looking across the water (the Arabian Sea is dark — much deeper than the Gulf), when an old man comes out from the passageway and over to me. He is a workingman, cotton-clad. His face is grizzled, he is almost toothless, he wears a Muslim’s lace skullcap. He stops beside me and asks if he can see the book — Venture to the Interior, a book about Africa — that I have in my hand. I say, sure.
The Gulf is light green — the water is not so deep. The first morning at sea is bright, but misty far off. From the promenade deck I can see supertankers in the mist, crossing the horizon in a long irregular line.
They are a brush’s bare strokes on a watercolor horizon. Each one is a long, long stretched-out hull, barely visible above the waterline, and a bit of housing at the far back.
The first evening as supper was finishing, I was sitting alone noticing the napkin rings were numbered when a steward entered the dining saloon and, bending to me, whispered that the captain would like, after coffee, to have me up. (He’d gone up already, from his place at center table.) So later I climbed, first the staircase and then a steep metal stair-ladder in open air to the boat deck up top. The captain’s quarters were fitted in closely behind the bridge. We hadn’t yet left Dubai, which sat off behind the darkened harbor area. I knocked on the captain’s door, hearing communication equipment inside.
To the dessert forks and coffee spoons, each piece in the Dwarka’s silver was engraved with the letters “BI,” for British India Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. B.I., as itself, no longer exists — it is part of a corporation now — but in its day it had as much to do with the making and shifting of eras in the world as has any similar enterprise, early or late, any carrier of human beings.
I step into a quiet passageway, and an Indian steward in a white jacket appears, leads me to my cabin. It has wood shutters and a fan on the wall, a sink, dressing table, desk, two wardrobe closets and three bunks, two over-under. No one else is in here. I sit on a bunk. The clamor is distant now. The harbor ruffles outside.
In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. The book was rejected 75 times and never published — so this chapter from it has never before been shared. I thought I’d serialize it, starting today.
The last Dubai morning is washed in sun. A taxi takes me from my hotel neighborhood, looking back as I leave it, down into Port Rashid through a gate in a very long, high wire fence. I see no water, only asphalt expanse. Cranes and cargo derricks stand at leisure, far down the sky. Somewhere in this the taxi lands me at the passenger terminal, which is a tiny white cube on the asphalt. This is not, it seems, a people-oriented port.
If you observe a good teacher working with an elementary or middle school class, you’ll very likely notice something striking. I’ve seen it often — and so has Soryu Forall, director of the Burlington, Vermont-based Center for Mindful Learning.
“By and large, teachers teach the same two points most often,” Forall writes on the nonprofit’s "Modern Mindfulness for Schools" blog. “They ask the students to focus, and they ask the student to relax. ... ‘Pay attention,’ ‘Let’s begin,’ ‘Eyes on me’ ... ‘Settle down,’ ‘Calm down,’ ‘It’s okay.’”
But even the best teachers don’t teach kids how to relax, or how to pay attention. If they knew how to teach that, wouldn’t they? “No teacher would merely tell their students to understand math,” Forall points out.
Recently I contributed a guest blog post to Shatterproof, an impressive online campaign whose "mission is to protect our children from addiction to alcohol or other drugs and end the stigma and suffering of those affected by this disease." Here's what I had to say:
As an adult child of two alcoholics, I know how addiction can be the “elephant in the living room,” the thing it’s never okay to talk about. But if we’re to make a real impact on this nationwide trauma — and since, as this website reports so strikingly, addiction “nearly always originates in adolescence” — then I think we need to confront the elephant that it’s still so hard for many of us to face or discuss. Teenagers tend to learn addictive behavior from their parents.
The teenager daughter of two friends actually read four (!) of my YA novels, and asked if she could send a few questions. I said, Sure. She sent 10. So here they are, with my answers:
1. What inspired you to write these books?
I'm generally inspired by real kids, by the things they share with me and the things they deal with.
When my YA novel The Revealers was just breaking through, a friend in Montpelier, Vermont, where I’d lived for many years, asked if I would write about the experience for The Bridge, the state capitol's local paper. I asked if I could interview myself, and if it could get testy. So ...
How much longer do you plan on exploiting your pathetic childhood for personal gain?
That’s your first question? That’s how you want to start?
School Library Journal’s February issue has a big feature on the rise of small presses and self-publishing, and what this means to librarians. The article’s essence: there’s a big and growing flow of fresh books from non-mainstream sources. And librarians, though often open by nature to new possibilities, are challenged to sort through everything and dig out the good stuff.
Fair enough. But the article’s headline capsulizes the challenge that faces the people, such as me, who’ve taken to producing books independently. The head: “Fringe Factor.” Its implication: do we really have to wade through all this junk?
“I started out with nothing, and I’ve still got most of it left.” That old Vermont saying pretty much captures the career I've had, myself, as a full-time, self-employed writer up here for over 30 years. Not complaining; but in the bleakness of winter, I have been reflecting. Has it been worth it? Is it still?