Category: literary

Kent Haruf, a Benediction

Readers lost a great novelist, and Great Plains and Western writers like myself lost a mentor, on Sunday.

Colorado should be proud of, and surely grieves for, Kent Haruf, a resident of Salida, Colorado, who wrote about a fictional Colorado Eastern plains community in Plain Song, Eventide and Benediction. Just prior to his death, he finished the copy edits for his upcoming novel, scheduled for release next year.

His fiction resounds with thoughtful observations of ordinary people, the bonds and limitations of community life and a special appreciation for the sugar beet farming country of eastern Colorado. His characters run from infants to the aged, from unwed mothers to bachelor farmers. In portraying all, he shows the grace of compassion and an exquisite mercy. His language is simple and strong.

After first reading his novels this year, I’d hoped someday to meet this national treasure and warm human being. An acquaintance from the Women Writing the West Conference, Susan Tweit, wrote an engaging post about her relationship with Haruf, her neighbor. Her words make me even more sorry I’ll never have the chance to know him, but his work inspires me to write clear, heartfelt stories about the Great Plains and West, focusing as he did on broken, yet redeemable, hearts and relationships.

I encourage you to feed your hearts and minds on Kent Haruf’s fiction. You may soon share my gratitude that his words live on. May he rest in the peace he shared in writing with all of us.

Who Doesn’t Like to Read?

Sometimes being an avid reader begins or ends in childhood…(click post title for video).

The Darkwater Liar’s Account as The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Kourtney Heintz for nominating me for The Next Big Thing blog award. She has inspired me to keep standing up when rejections smack me down. Thanks, Coach. I look forward to reading some of your work soon.

What is the title of your Work in Progress? The Darkwater Liar’s Account

Where did the idea come from for the book? About four years ago, I read about yet another Nazi who’d been hiding since WWII under a secret identity, only to be brought to trial in his last years. I realized that there must be many people still alive who cooperated in Hitler’s Germany to varying degrees, people who go on with their lives and never admit their involvement.

What genre does your book fall under? Commercial, historical fiction with literary value (I’d like to think so.)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I would love Cate Blanchett to play the main character, Bridget, and Ryan Gosling as her adult son, Erich. Yes, I have a vivid and specific fantasy life. But that’s a good thing, right?

 What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book? After crossing a continent, an ocean and two decades, Bridget lives a lie to hide her Nazi complicity during WWII, but the truth still breathes, and worse, it intends to kill her.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? That is a very good question. We are all still deciding, but I’m not getting any younger…

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? There was much to research, so it took three years.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre? Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Who or what inspired you to write this book? As in my own life, when a person is young, it’s easy to rush in, to make unwise commitments without foreseeing the consequences. That doesn’t mean there are none. We live with what we chose in our youth and redemption can be elusive, even fatal.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? The novel follows Bridget from 1930s London, through Germany from 1936-1945, then into Nebraska through 1968. I use actual excerpts from my late grandmother’s early 20th-century accounts ledger as a device and structure where Bridget chooses to settle her own “account.”

My nominees, based on my love for their current work and my curiosity about their WIPs:

Anna Solomon I just read her novel, The Little Bride. Wow! A great historical work about Russian Jewish immigrant settlement in Dakota territory.

Nichole Bernier Her new novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, moves the mind and heart to consider loss, friendship, parenting and marriage.

The Writer’s Life Jenna Blum has two great novels available now, Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers. I’ve read and love both.

Unreliable Narrator I’ve read Dell Smith’s work on Beyond the Margins. I love his insights on story and writing.

Word Love Randy Susan Meyers’ novel, The Murderer’s Daughters took my breath away with her bold tale of the everyday horror of childhood amid and after domestic violence. I see on her blog that another novel is coming soon.

Be sure to visit these blogs. These authors are worth your reading time. And thanks again, Kourtney.

Short Attention Span Summer Fiction

our dust storm, 2012

Our Iowa summer days seemed long and hot, due to drought, but the season stopped short of our expectations for rainfall and yield. It also held a few surprises. That’s not a cloud towering over the farmhouse by the trees in the picture above, but prime Iowa topsoil in flight; fortunately, it was a short-lived, springtime dust-eater that blew through in less than an hour. It left grit in our teeth and ribbons of black soil strewn across my hardwood floor, blown through the ventilation holes below my sliding glass door. All summer, I hoped for and missed the usual sizzle, crack and wash of thunderstorms. Maybe next year.

In celebration of short things, you might enjoy a (brief) visit to an online literary journal, wigleaf: (very) short fiction. Short fiction, short shorts and even flash fiction (which is not only short, but written in a prescribed period of time)–these are fun-sized fictions for fast people hurtling through long distances, short on time and feeling late. Or, even for you.

Try wigleaf. I especially enjoyed “Shorn,” by Sarah Beth Childers.

From time to time, I’ll post other literary journal connections. Good stuff. Sometimes strange and always new.

Measure your day not by minutes, but by stories. It’ll sound better that way.

History, Courage & Learning to Remember

In college, I was no history buff. Dr. Lynwood Oyos’ legendary Western Civilization class at Augustana College nearly sank me in terms of my grade point average. He was a brilliant and personable professor who expected his students to immerse themselves in history, not simply learning dates, but absorbing the past in dimensions at that time beyond my grasp. I appreciated the man but came to fear history, at least as an academic pursuit.

On our first date, Goodhusband and I met in a bookstore…yes indeed, an auspicious sign. Thumbing through a published collection of World War II photographs, he told me more than I’d ever learned about that war. While he and I were in high school, some teachers claimed that it was “too soon” to teach or learn about it, that time must bring perspective. Maybe it was just too near and painful to talk about.

World War II holds my interest as a writer because of its complexity and endless potential for storytelling, so I read quite a bit about it. My as-yet-unpublished novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, is about a woman who survived that war and lived to regret it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, as a reader I’m attracted to stories about people caught in events so devastating, so pivotal and yet so real.

Last week I read Sarah’s Key, a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay that revisits a World War II event in Paris. Beginning on July 16, 1942, Paris police herded thousands of French Jewish families into the Vélodrome d’Hiver before deporting them in train cars to extermination camps. Sarah is a fictional character at the center of that catastrophe who captures the interest of the novel’s main character, a journalist named Julia Jarmond. This Rafle du Vél d’Hiv, or the Vél d’Hiv Roundup, is seen from both Julia’s and Sarah’s perspectives as De Rosnay explores the multi-generational and cross-cultural suffering generated by indifference and complicity with Nazi racial extermination. Her story also explores healing, which is an essential, elusive but excruciating process for individuals, families and communities at war. It’s a great story and I highly recommend it, although it depicts intense tragedy and its aftermath. Don’t go into this story expecting to emerge unruffled. For more information about Vél d’Hiv, Ms. De Rosnay and her fiction, I recommend her website. Background on  Vél d’Hiv is widespread on the web, but the Guardian ran a cluster of features on the historical event, De Rosnay’s novel and the related motion picture, featuring Kristin Scott Thomas. The Time World page on the 70th anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv roundup, this past July, is worth viewing, as well.

Denise Madeleine Bloch

My random WWII research this week also led me to the story of a survivor of Vél d’Hive, Denise Madeleine Bloch. As Parisian Jews, she and her family must have felt the tide turning; they fled Paris just in time, crossing the demarcation line into “free,” unoccupied Lyon on July 17th. There the Special Operations Executive, a British World War II organization, recruited her into resistance as a wireless operator and courier. A successful and resilient agent, she learned the art of deception, memorized cryptographer codes, underwent rigorous physical and psychological training and even gathered the courage to parachute jump. Her codenames included “Ambroise” and “Crinoline.” Ensign Denise Block was executed in early 1945 at Ravensbrück and received several posthumous awards. You may read more about her where I found this information, here.

These women–an author, an undercover agent and fictional characters you’ll never forget–their lives, events and stories demonstrate that facts can expand and live through storytelling, whether academic, journalistic or fictional. Resounding with meaning in our senses and memory, stories lead us to embrace and remember people and events that must never be forgotten.

That’s probably what Dr. Oyos wanted me to learn, once I was ready.

Coffee, Red Wine and Poetry

photo by jonathan ruchti

Although I usually write and read longer, paragraphed forms of writing, a good poem remains for me better than that first coffee in the morning, surpassing even that rich red warm glass of wine in the evening. A good poem awakens and lulls me. I carry it away.

On a social network site, a friend posted a note about William Stafford. Stafford first appealed to me in grad school; his writing clenches like a root, tenacious in the Great Plains and western American landscape. His voice also carries the honest tone of a friend confiding in another, as in, “Ask Me.”

Ask Me*

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

–William Stafford

Carry this.

*”Ask Me” copyright 1977, 1998 by the Estate of William Stafford.

The Aviatrix, Monks, Landlopers and Longing for Home

amelia earhart

Last evening I again watched the movie, Amelia, about the aviator Amelia Earhart. I enjoyed it as much as I had, the first time. I like seeing some movies more than once because the best films, like the best fiction, are deep with resonance and meanings that don’t jump out at me; on review, my mind links together ideas and themes that weren’t obvious, at first.

This time, a few simple lines of dialogue struck me, and as I haven’t been able to verify the exact words, I paraphrase here. As Amelia talked over the radio to her husband, he remarked that when she returned from circling the globe, they would go home. She asked where that was and he commented, “Wherever you are.” Her response? “I’d like it there.” It’s beyond irony that they shared these feelings right before she became lost, 75 years ago.

Wherever you are. This phrase might be interpreted in a few different ways. The first implies a traveling show, a potentially solo journey around the world where, whenever you land your plane or pitch your tent, tada! You’re at home. It brings to mind the spirit of the American West, cowboys around their campfires and homesteaders crossing the plains and mountains in prairie schooners.

photo by gayle lindgren

Even though I’ve traveled a bit and lived in many different places, serial mobility was a challenge. As a child, I was often the new girl, as my father’s career demanded; we called IBM “I’ve Been Moved” for good reason. As an adult, every move was a new home-making, fraught with frustration and confusion. (One of the first challenges was always finding my way to, through and back from the nearest/best/most economical grocery store, with kids in tow.) Even though I’ve settled down considerably, qualities common to many of my fictional characters are a sense of displacement and a longing for home.

A second interpretation implies that we define home by our companions. About fifteen years ago, I was blessed to fall among Benedictines, finding fellowship and education at a monastery near my home. Of all the monastic values, the words St. Benedict of Nursia recorded in his Rule about restlessness and stability impressed me the most. He mentions “gyrovagues” (translated in some texts as “Landlopers”), monks who move from one monastic community to another, failing to commit to any one and living at their ease until something disturbs them, at which time they leave for another, more pleasant place. “Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 1)

st. benedict by fra angelico

In my interpretation, St. Benedict wasn’t simply recommending to his followers that they commit to a geographic place, although that is implied and can be a good thing to consider, maybe especially so in our lightfooted (dare I say “landloping?”) culture. It’s a reluctance to commit to a community, to other people, that carries the spiritual risk. Committing to another person is the hardest work we face as human beings, whether he or she is a spouse, friend, child or co-worker; I’ve learned this the hard way, through trying and failing. We can’t hold every person equally, but when we make a commitment, we may do well to remain, to strengthen that meaningful bond.

So, wherever you are, who are the people where you find your home?