Consultation No. 4 – With Papa Hemingway

 

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With some trepidation I knocked at Ernest Hemingway’s door and waited. And waited. Had I waited much longer I would have left, knowing his short fuse with reporters and lesser writers. With research we had found that the rap on Papa was that he was incredibly knowledgeable on a wide number of subjects, that he might regale me with some longwinded thing about fishing. And if he’d been drinking he was Henry VIII incarnate. All of our misgivings proved of no consequence, though; he’d been writing and, of course, not drinking.

He walked on the veranda, a glass of vermouth and crushed ice in his hand, a Panama hat perched back, and actually a bit earthy with his native aroma. He’d been fishing, as it turned out, and cleaning fish with a couple of his favorite crewmen. We shook hands, he smiled, and after a few icebreakers, our brief interview began.Throughout our brief time there, we found him cheerful, engaging, and helpful to this blogger. Until I mentioned passionless writing.

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GF – We’re doing a series on modern novelists writing without passion, and –

EH – Passion? Writing without passion? Jesus, man, how is that even possible?

GF – We’re in an era that’s been dubbed postmodern. And in this era, you see, technique rules.

EH – No shit! And is there some school these writers go to to learn this?

GF – Yes. There are hundreds of writing programs out there now, and technique is the main thing they’re taught.

EH – My god. I was being ironical in asking that.

GF – Well, sir, that’s the writing life these days, and –

EH – People buy this claptrap? And don’t say sir to me. I’m not a politician or a banker. Everybody here calls me Papa.

GF – In dwindling numbers, yes. But if we could return to the subject of passion…

EH – Papa. Say it.

GF – All right. Papa. (At this point a young woman appeared, whispered something, and left. He quickly informed me that a journalist from Cuba was waiting and asked if we could cut the talk short.) Can you give me, quickly then, your views on passion in the novel.

EH – Damn right I will! Send these kids to war, and if not war, send them into the seediest parts of any town and make them live there for a year, two years, as long as it takes for them to get it through their highly educated heads that that’s where passion is. On the battlefield! In the ghettos! In fact, how the hell do they have any stories without seeing how man treats his fellow man? Christ, what do you have out there, a bunch of Scott Fitzgeralds?

GF – The last few minutes of his response were profanity-laced, little of which would have contributed to passion in writing. I didn’t tell him I speak a little Spanish, and as I left, he was ranting to the Cuban journalist about the nincompoop that had informed him that writers in his era were putting out passionless writing. And people were buying it!

 

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Stories With An Arkansas Sensibility

 

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Collected Stories, by Raymond Carver

Continuing my focus on the short story:

Without realizing their liaison, I met Carver’s wife in Atlanta in the eighties. As with most writing wannabes (I was only beginning to understand this art in my makeup), I sought her out at a book launch of hers and probably said too many silly and unwashed things to her. I do remember, though, telling her I had my own passion for poetry, but that I was already dabbling in fiction. Like most writers in such circumstances, she was a class act. She listened and nodded and said some now forgotten encouraging thing. But I do remember, at the mention of fiction’s seed in my soul, she gave me a wary look. Later, as I grew familiar with Carver, I understood where that wariness had its impetus. I digress, and I’ve barely started.

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To my mind, these stories sit astride the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck, but without Papa’s elevated style and Steinbeck’s literary mysticism. Carver’s stories seem more calibrated to the short form’s length and his style is more homespun and located in the style of Cormac McCarthy. There’s an element of humor here too, a taste of wild abandon that surely comes from his rural Arkansas background.

These are stories that I learn from. Not so much in an instructional way; rather in remembering my own rural Southern past and chasing it into fiction.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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Harrison’s Hits and Misses

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The Ancient Minstrel, by Jim Harrison

Being a writer myself, I’ve begun to realize how difficult it is to separate what I write from me. Some writers, like the late Jim Harrison (died this year – 2016), don’t bother with such trivialities. Nor did Harrison limit his range of writing to fiction (he was perhaps better known for his poetry), but fiction is the focus here. This slim book is a collection of three novellas, each unique in some way.

The first novella, The Ancient Minstrel, is a brilliant piece of writing; he does something I’ve never seen before. He writes an autobiography as fiction. In doing so, he orients his story – and life – about a bucolic phase raising pigs and going fishing. The joy of this life is there, alongside marital discord, in sometimes repentant tone. I imagine he omits quite a lot about his own foibles, but he writes whimsically, almost sadly of his life, and I believe the essence of that life is on these pages.

The second piece, Eggs, is to this reader a failure. In this story he writes from the point of view of a young woman whose central desire is to have a farm and raise chickens. The story wanders from the woman’s childhood in England during World War II’s “Blitz” to her motherhood, occasionally reaching afield to touch his recurring symbol: eggs. In the end, the story goes on far too long for what Harrison has to say.

The final piece, The Case of the Howling Buddhas, is a comedy, in the end a dark one. And what better way in this day and age, Harrison realizes, to elicit laughter than to focus on humanity’s reproductive and scatological tendencies. His central character here is a retired cop with a sex addiction who has a hard time concealing his desires, particularly those involving a horny sixteen year-old who lives down the street. What we have here is Nabokov in everyman prose.

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Harrison’s writing is uneven; at times throwing off story bits as if discarded chewing gum, at other times as brilliant as the Hemingway he seems to be so affected by. What you have here is Jim Harrison, plain and simple.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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Growing In Fiction

Writers, how many others like you do you know who resist publishing, not wanting  to see their creations criticized? Further, how many have you known who don’t want editing help, even when it’s offered at bargain basement prices, or even for free? Know anyone who won’t join a critique group because, well, no one there will see the oh, so inspired creativity there?

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The only thing I can offer to writers with such fragility in them is that no piece of writing is ever perfect. Sure, you can improve, in structure, in appeal to readers, and in ideas put forth in story. Take this piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel. The novel in question here wasn’t perfect,but there were moments of genius, pages of inspired prose. In a sense, Fitzgerald was lucky to see this one published. But if he hadn’t listened to his peers, principally Hemingway, a subsequent and acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, would have been a rehash of the first, with the same flaws, and his career would’ve stalled long before it did.

 

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Papa Hemingway Rebuts

Coffee With Hemingway, by Kirk Curnutt

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Ever dream about a little face time with one of your favorite celebrities? Streisand, perhaps? Sinatra? Elvis? Bono? Would such a meet-up edify, or would it disappoint?

I’ve never thought that I’d enjoy such an encounter with my favorite writer, but in Curnutt’s imaginative hands, the story reveals much of what Hemingway was about. To be sure, he’s abrasive here, and he’s constantly toying with words and names as he holds court. What’s revealed here? I’ll list just a few bon mots:

 

“The only writing that’s any good is what you make up, out of your imagination. That’s what makes things ring true. Good writing has truths that aren’t necessarily facts.”

 

“(Expatriation) teaches you dislocation, which sharpens the memory and makes you able to recall details you take for granted when you’re in the actual place you’re writing about.”

 

“…journalism is a racket. It puts a dollar value on your words that’s destructive.”

 

This small book, containing a brief read, distills Papa’s attitude toward life and writing quite well, and any reader or writer would find it well worth the hour or so it would take to read.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

 

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It’s a Guy Thing

I came across the blog post linked below this morning about Hemingway: the writer I’d probably hate being around, but whose work continues to enthrall me. The post lists a few of his many “accidents,” something I can identify with.

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When we’re beyond trying to impress women with our physical exploits, when we’re no longer trying to prove the best among men, we still feel the urge to push the limits of our physical vehicles: can our reflexes allow us to cut in between the semi and SUV in the next lane? Can we lift that twelve foot piece of sheetrock alone? Can we hike a steep mountain trail in record time, without a fall or a twisted ankle?

For me it’s been housebuilding, mostly – hauling tons of rock to the swale behind the house to prevent erosion. Hauling more stones to build a patio and a fire pit. And, ahem, the aforementioned sheetrock – among other physical challenges. It’s caused me enough scars for the missus to call me Frankenstein Junior: a shoulder surgery, two arthroscopic knee surgeries, hand surgery,  an abdominal surgery, and most recently, a knee replacement.

Would I have done things differently? Probably not, although I have rued the need for these surgeries.

Women will read this post and say, “This guy’s nuts.” Okay, I willingly admit. So was Hemingway. So are many, many men. Our insanity is of a sort, much different than that of women, and I can’t ask that women understand. But if you can tolerate, maybe we can make a little progress in bridging that awkward-to-negotiate, tempestuous phenomenon we’ve come to call the gender divide.

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Peering Through Zelda’s Eyes

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Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler

 

Have you ever wondered how the Lost Generation seemed through the eyes of a wife of one of those famed male writers? Therese Anne Fowler apparently did, and took up Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s cause in the process. By previous male accounts, Zelda was rambunctious, opinionated, and deeply vulnerable, and Fowler’s fictional accounting of Zelda’s life does little to counter that image. What the author does do is dig deeper into the relationship between Zelda and the Sayre family, between Zelda and Scott, and between this most famous wife of that arty bunch and Hemingway, whose writing pushed this Paris crowd into the public’s consciousness.

Zelda is of Alabama aristocracy, her father a prominent Montgomery judge. She’s a pretty girl who enjoys ballet and Southern society but who is shanghaied by handsome Northerner, Scott Fitzgerald. This doesn’t sit well with the Sayres, but Zelda, as Fowler writes of her, doesn’t really care. Off the couple go to New York, where they’re married, spend Scott’s money lavishly, drink too much, have a daughter, Scottie, and end up in Europe after two of Scott’s novels are published. There they stay, drinking and fighting, both deteriorating under the effects of overabundant alcohol, Scottie shuttled from one caretaker to another. After Zelda’s long, exhausting stay in the care of European psychiatrists, the family returns to the U.S. Then more hospitalization for Zelda while Scott parks himself in Hollywood writing movie scripts.

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Besides this chronicling of a troubled literary family, the author takes on another project here: depicting an emerging feminist movement in Europe and the grip male attitudes had on women, particularly the wives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Her writing is well done for the most part, blemished only by occasionally bland dialogue – the product of lack of strong narrative support. I wondered halfway through how Fowler would handle Zelda’s mental deterioration, but that facet of Zelda’s life was managed dazzlingly well. While this book is fiction, and while much of what’s been written of the Fitzgeralds is admitted to be contradictory, this is a valuable addition to the legend of the Lost Generation.

 

My rating 17 of 20 stars

 

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