Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Angela Davis & Toni Morrison on friendship and creativity

If you are juggling several responsibilities and still trying to maintain an imaginative life, you may find some encouragement in my recent Q & A with Toni Morrison and Angela Davis. Thanks for reading, and sorry for the conflicting fonts. 

Dan White: I would guess that even some of your most ardent fans don’t realize that you were an influential editor at Random House for 20 years. At the time, you were bringing out African American voices, including some strong feminist voices, to a wider audience.

Toni Morrison: Well, I was determined to do that when I came there. There was a lot of activity going on, a lot of activism, and I thought, 'I will publish these voices instead of marching.' I thought it was my responsibility to publish African American and African writers who would otherwise not be published or not be published well, or edited well, and so I brought out works by (Muhammad) Ali and Toni Cade (Bambara) and Gayl (Jones), and I did a whole collection of African short stories and then I did The Black Book, and I thought that was important because I was good at it, because I had read some books by black writers about black things, and they were so badly edited, it made you want to weep. Like Roots (by Alex Haley). Have you ever read that?

DW: I was a kid when it came out. I did see most of the mini-series.

TM: Oh, they just threw (the book) together. It was backward anyway, and they threw in the ending. He says ‘that child was me.’ We knew that in the beginning!

To Angela Davis: During her time at Random House, Toni Morrison edited your biography, which was published in 1974. How did that initial connection come about?

AD:  She contacted me. I wasn’t so much interested in writing an autobiography. I was very young. I think I was 26 years old. Who writes an autobiography at that age? Also, I wasn’t that interested in writing a book that was focused on a personal trajectory. Of course, at that time, the paradigm for the autobiography, as far as I was concerned, was the heroic individual, and I certainly did not want to represent myself in that way.  But Toni Morrison  persuaded me that I could write it the way I wanted to; it could be the story not only of my life but of the movement in which I had become involved, and she was successful.

To Angela Davis: Your autobiography is very cinematic. I’ve read a lot of your more academic work, but this one is constructed like a novel. In the very beginning, you’re trying to get away from the FBI, and there is this palpable sense of fear. The reader is right in the middle of a manhunt. I was wondering how much of that comes from the influence of your mentor, Toni Morrison.

AD: The decision to begin the story at the moment when I went underground and then would be arrested was an interesting way of drawing people into a story, the outlines of which they already knew because, of course, my being placed on the FBI 10 most wanted list was publicized all around the country, all around the world. So yes, there was the use of the kind of cinematic strategy of flashback, and this was thanks to input from my editor, Toni Morrison. She did not rewrite things for me, but she asked me questions. She would say, ‘what did the space look like? What was in the room, and how would you describe it?’ It was quite an amazing experience for me to have her as a mentor. My experience with writing was primarily writing about philosophical issues. I really had to learn about how to write something that would produce images in people’s minds that would draw them into a story.

TM:  Working with Angela was sui generis, and I didn’t just edit her book. I went on her book tour with her; I was her handler! All over. This was before I was Toni Morrison (Morrison’s real name is Chloe Wofford. Toni is her nickname, and 'Morrison' is the last name of her ex-husband.) We were in Scandinavia at one point, and I was a good handler.  People would come up to her you, know: ‘My brother is in prison, and I was wondering, could we have a cocktail party (to raise money for him)?’ and the thing was, (Davis) would stop and listen, and say, ‘where is he?’, and I would say, 'Angela, come on!'

DW: You seem to be someone who is good at setting boundaries with other people.

TM: Yes. that’s true. I’ve learned three things.  I tell everybody that I never used these words much but now I am happy to use them pretty much all the time. One is ‘no.’ The other one is ‘shut up.’ And the last one is ‘get out!’ Now that I have that arsenal, I could go forth. (laughs.)

DW: This is a bit of an aside, but it relates to what you just said about creating firm boundaries with people. Once, I saw you reading at Columbia University, and a woman stood up and said, “Toni Morrison, I would love to read you this poem I wrote," and you said, “No.”

TM: I said that? (laughs.)

DW: To AD: When you were working with Toni Morrison, she was bringing new books to life of her own.The Bluest Eye was written while she was still at Random House. Did you ever have a chance to see her in action, working on a book?

AD: Absolutely. I had the opportunity to read The Bluest Eye before most people I know were exposed to it, and I can remember that she would write during every spare moment. This is something that really impressed me about her: her discipline, her focus. One time, I was sitting in her house in Rockland County, (New York), and she had to drive in to (Manhattan) every day to work at Random House. I would see her when we were driving in. When there was traffic, she would pull out a little pad and write something or pull out a scrap of paper here or there, and I realized she was living the life of the next novel in her mind, regardless of whatever else was happening. I have always been impressed by her ability to be so focused and to inhabit the universe of her writing while not neglecting the universe that involves the rest of us.

DW: And she did all this while raising two boys on her own, dealing with the commute, and holding down a high-powered job.

AD:  And she was not a hermit so she also had a very active social life as well. To be able to maintain that focus – this is something she continues to do today. I am impressed by the regularity with which her novels are published. She is always working on a project. She always inhabits that other world.

DW to TM: Angela Davis has gone into detail about your relentless drive, about how often you bring out new books. I wanted to know what continues to spur you on in your career at this point. (Morrison is now 83.) Is there some other form you haven’t tried yet, some goal you feel you haven’t met?

TM:  No, I’ve pretty much run the gamut, but writing novels is the world to me, literally. The outside world can be OK or not OK, beautiful or not beautiful, but I am in control here. When I’m writing, nobody’s telling me what to do. The expectations are high because they are mine, and that is a kind of freedom I don’t have anywhere else. Nowhere. I’m not very happy when I don’t have a project. I don’t have to actually be developing a manuscript but if I don’t have an idea about the beginning of it, wondering about it ...

DW: This one is for Angela Davis. You’ve been friends with Toni Morrison for 40 years now, and you’ve had a chance to see her work develop and her influence grow. I was hoping you could comment on the way Toni Morrison’s work has influenced the literary world, and the world in general.

AD: As a result of her work and the work of some others, it became possible to imagine slavery very differently, to humanize slavery, to remember the system of slavery did not destroy the humanity of those whom it enslaved; oftentimes, the assumption is that slavery was all bad, and of course, if you portray slaves as experiencing joy or making music, you somehow violate the ethics of recognizing slavery as evil, but of course, if slaves were not able to reach down and find some humanity within themselves, they would have ceased to be human beings, literally. That is why the focus on reimagining slave subjectivities is so important. Beloved, of course, allows us to do this, and it renders a very different approach, not only to literature but also to history and to popular narratives about slave histories. A film like Twelve Years a Slaveis very important, but at the same time, there was a dimension that was lacking.

DW to TM: Perhaps you could reflect on how slavery was portrayed when you first took it on as a subject.

TM: The way slavery was portrayed was different. It changes when you take away ‘the white gaze.’ All those wonderful writers who wrote after they were freed were writing for abolitionists. They didn’t think I was going to read it, and so they had to please or not disturb white abolitionists with their stories, so you read Frederick Douglass, and I can feel the anger that he erases. That’s not there. If he knew I was reading it, it might be a very different book. Even Ralph Ellison. I tell people he called the book Invisible Man. As good as the book is, my initial response is, 'Invisible to whom?'

DW for Toni Morrison: While you’ve dealt with some truly horrific subject matter in your books, including slavery, you’ve also placed a lot of emphasis on narrativizing good in your work. Why is that so important to you as a value in your work?

TM: Goodness—there really isn’t anything else that humans ought to be cultivating and living for. The rest of it is petty and selfish, cartoonish almost.  I always think of evil with a top hat and a big band and a cape, a cane,  maybe some shiny jewelry, so you are very, very attracted by the glitter. I thought the most impressive thing that the Nazis did for their cause was their designer, their uniforms, the length of their boots.

DW: That, and the power of the loudspeaker.

TM: Yes. Crowds, loudspeakers, a big drama, and people were seduced: those who were not repelled and those who were not slaughtered.

DW: You’ve mentioned that evil has gotten an enormous promotion in literature while good has been dragged off center stage. You’ve mentioned that goodness often comes across as weak or muffled or silent.

TM:  It wasn’t true in literature in the early days. There was always a hero who prevailed. As awful as things could happen in a Dickens novel, it ended up with the survival and triumph of high morality, of people who deserved to triumph. But something happened. Now, I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think it is after World War I with novelists at any rate, and certainly some of the war poets. Perhaps they understood themselves as attacking evil but they ended up theatricalizing it and the good people were fairly stupid or unlucky or what have you. There are references in literature to the silencing of goodness … I am interested in pulling from the modern canon what I know and what I believe about this adoration and fascination, this compulsion to display evil. Even if there is a mild attempt to say that it is evil, nevertheless, it’s hogging the stage in many novels. I think goodness is weak in literature almost like it is in the culture. This is just a general observation.

DW: In light of this, how do you dramatize good in your own stories?

TM:  For me, there is always an ending in which somebody knows something extremely important that they didn’t know before so the acquisition of knowledge is a gesture of mine toward goodness. The accumulation of events, theories, changes of mind, encounters, whatever is going on at the end of the book, it tends to move toward some kind of epiphany that is a revelation of a better self. Now, there is a lot of sadness and melancholy among the people in my books but strategically, structurally, that is what I think is going on.  I might not be the best example of what I am describing in the lecture (in Santa Cruz) but I don’t want to leave a text with the reader hopeless or even helpless, and certainly somebody in there has to survive in the atmosphere of goodness or love, and Love is the best example of my books of that.

DW: In a lecture at the Harvard Divinity School in 2012, you also delved into different interpretations – different theories – about the reasons for altruism. According to one interpretation you mentioned in the lecture, altruism is not an innate value. It has to be taught, learned. With this in mind, do you think novels can, or should, bear an ethical responsibility, a moral weight?

TM: I would hate to say they bear that weight but it would be more interesting to me if they would examine that (issue) more carefully, not in black and white terms, you know, villains and heroes, but in some other way. I’ve read some interesting definitions of altruism, none of them very helpful or positive. One said it was narcissism,  and another said it was kind of a mental illness. The notion of its being taught is the question you put to me. And I thought about that that when I went, as I one often does when the human answers aren’t (satisfying), to the animal world. There is so much sacrifice of the one for the community, whether it is ants who are always trailing back to find the body of another ant, or bats that sacrifice themselves when they hear something to save the cave, or birds that will call attention to themselves to warn the rest of the flock. It’s all over the natural world. Of course, there are lots of instance of sacrifice (in the human realm), parental sacrifices that are well known, and lovers in the history of narrative, but I was just particularly interested in what was happening currently, you know,  in the last 40 years. Many writers believe that evil is just more interesting than goodness.

DW: And you’ve found ways to push the good back to center stage, at least in your own works. One example that comes to mind is your most recent novel, Home, where you have forces of good that not are polite, the 'country women who loved mean.' And when someone complains, they say, 'Hush up, hush.'

TM: That’s right. ‘Shut up!’

DW:  These women will nurse a dying person back to life but they don’t coddle at all. So, clearly, you are making a distinction between these forces of goodness and a kind of sentimentality ...

TM: Yes, exactly. When their maker said, 'What did you do?', they didn’t want to say, 'Um ...'  They had to answer. That is so familiar to me from my family. I am glad you brought up the word sentimentality. It is not that. It is something else that works.

DW: Their desire to help Cee (an ailing character in the novel Home) seems like an innate value  and a shared value in their community. But you’ve also had good people going against the collective, like the priest in your novel A Mercy. He takes such a risk when he teaches slaves to read.

TM: Yes. He could be thrown in prison and fined. He had to sneak off and teach them to read. Who knows why he did that? The point is he thought it was a valuable thing to do. And I remember that kid in Lovewho was with a bunch of friends at a party who were raping a girl, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t.

DM: And he gets so much grief for that …

TM: Yes, he does. That gesture  of ‘I will not participate’ – in doing this, he sacrifices his reputation, and therefore, he could be the one at the end of the book who could salvage this woman.  I am much more interested in the movement from evil and selfishness to something else.

DM: And you have works that complicate the idea of good and evil. For me, as a reader, one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of Beloved is the withholding of judgment of Sethe, the main character, for killing her child. You didn’t seem to be condemning her. The moral weighing is left up to the reader.

TM:  That was the big deal in the writing of Beloved, this story of this woman, Margaret Garner (the real life escaped slave who inspired Toni Morrison’s character, Sethe). And I realized early on precisely what you said: that I couldn’t judge her. Suppose I knew definitely that my boys, my children, were going to be kidnapped, taken off, molested, what would I do? And I couldn’t answer. I answered differently depending on what I thought the danger to them was then. I realized there was only one person who was in the position to make that judgment, and that was the dead child.

DW: And we do get her perspective in the book.

TM: Yes, this is what she thinks.

DW: And that moment in Beloved in the barn, when Sethe is killing her child, made me think of other mothers and daughters in your novels and these extreme demonstrations of love: the scene where the character Eva, in Sula, sets fire to Plum, but she also jumps out the window to save Hannah, and a scene in A Mercy when a mother gives her child away.

TM: Yes, extreme forms of love. And the thing is, we think of it in romantic way, but I was reminded recently of somebody in a book one of mine, in Sula, when (Hannah) said, 'Did you ever love me?' And her mother said, 'I kept you alive.'
DW: It’s love, and it’s a form of goodness, but there’s something kind of fierce about it.

TM:  In that community they didn’t have anything. They had no water. They were separate from the town. They didn’t have anything except for themselves, and how they handle one another is the way they live in the world.  I always think these are the people who don’t necessarily like you but they wont hurt you. They will save your life whether they want to save you or not.

DW: The good has a kind of bruising quality.

TM:  Yes. That is my way of doing it.

DW: You’ve also pointed out narratives that privilege evil, including media narratives, tend to relegate the forces of good to ‘freak’ status. At Harvard, in your lecture there in 2012, you talked about the Amish community, which refused to condemn a man for shooting a group of Amish girls, and even reached out to console his widow.

TM: Yes, and the media twisted it as freakish.

DW: I think the way you portray good without irony in your books, without that freakishness you just mentioned, would not be at all possible if you wrote from a position of cynicism and despair.

TM: Many writers do write from that position. And, you know, think of the suicide rate and the alcoholism. It is high among the writers we adore. Terrible things happen, and the world is sort of chaotic, and there is nothing anyone can do about it except to acknowledge it. Goodness, or some reach for moral clarity, is either (portrayed as) weak or is confined to the sort of scholastic confining world of religious people, you know, very religious people, evangelical people. I am a Catholic so even there it is very strong, and this an aside, but I guess we are seeing the consequences of religion in Syria. (ISIS) just chopped off some kid’s head – children! – and why? Because they didn’t agree with their system of belief. I know we’ve had this before, back during the Crusades, but there is something about the merging of evil and its theatrics that troubles me, not just in the world.  I look for it in the place where I’ve always found wisdom and art, and that is in literature.

DW: But surely there are times when world events have driven you to despair.

TM:  Let tell you a little anecdote. You’ll enjoy this. I wrote about this for a magazine.  (In 2004) I was writing something and I couldn’t (write), and I was feeling very sad, disturbed, I think. Anyway, whatever it was, it was paralyzing, and a friend, Peter Sellars (the opera and theater director who has collaborated with Morrison), called up, as he often does on Christmas Day or something during the holidays, and he is always up and working. He said, 'How are you?', and I said that I didn’t feel very good. It was sort of a sad time. I said. 'You know, Peter, I can’t write,' and I told him why I thought I couldn’t, and he started shouting, "No, no, no, no!' He said this is precisely the time when artists go to work, not when everything is fine but when things were difficult. Dire. This is when we’re needed …  God, think of all the writers who wrote in prisons, in gulags, you know. I mean, it is just amazing, so I felt a little ashamed but very happy that he said that. I've never had a problem since.

DW: You were a humanities professor for many years at Princeton. Considering these students are high powered, and many are going on to positions of great influence and power,  is it the particular responsibility of the humanities professor to use history and literature to teach ethics and moral responsibility?

TM: I prefer to think of it as moving (students) toward wisdom.

DW: How?

TM: By being wise!

DW: I’m going to end with a broad question for both writers: Is it possible for a book to change the world?

AD:  Absolutely. I think we would be living in a very different world had we not experienced the impact of Toni Morrison’s writing. There is no doubt about the extent to which she has influenced the literary world, not only in this country but all over. She has actually changed the face of the planet. And I see her as a person who made a conscious decision to use her literary talent to bring new ideas into the world, to change the world, absolutely. And often that happens more fundamentally, more profoundly, than the change that those of us who work at the political level envision. I don’t think that our notion of freedom would be what it is without the impact of Toni Morrison. She said that one cannot be free without freeing someone. Freedom is to free someone else. And of course, those of us who do political work, radical political work, always insist on the importance of transcending the single individual and to think about collective processes, and Toni Morrison has done this in her writing.

DW to TM: Is it possible for books to change the world?

TM: Some do. They just do. And it’s sometimes very difficult to get such books published. Think about James Joyce. You can’t think the same way after you read a certain voice.

DW: Angela Davis believes this is the case with your books.

TM: Well, I hope she’s right. And I’ve never known Angela to be wrong.



Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Cactuseaters feature story with Toni Morrison (read it here. But also read the much more detailed interview that I posted more recently.)



Here is my recent interview about good and evil in literature, among other things. The interview also includes a few words from Angela Davis, who will be introducing Professor Morrison during her upcoming sold-out lecture in Santa Cruz this month. (you can find the same interview online right here.) By the way I am hoping to release a much more detailed and expanded version of this that has a Q and A format and I will let you know as soon as that happens ...


At 83, Toni Morrison has no plans to retire. At this point in her career, that kind of drive has little to do with unmet goals; the Nobel Prize winner has written 10 novels, a play, and many nonfiction pieces. Her body of work, including the novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, is already part of the literary canon.

But Morrison, speaking by phone in her distinctive low, whispery voice from her home in New York's Hudson Valley, said she just can't be happy without a project. Her creative impulse and her desire for artistic freedom are as strong as ever.

"Writing novels is the world to me," she said. "The outside world can be OK or not OK, beautiful or not beautiful, but I am in control here," said Morrison, who still scratches out the first drafts of her novels with a pencil on yellow legal pads. "When I'm writing, nobody's telling me what to do. The expectations are high because they are mine, and that is a kind of freedom I don't have anywhere else. Nowhere."

While Morrison was a well-known literary figure before Beloved, that book's blockbuster success took her into the mainstream—a remarkable feat, considering the novel's unflinching look at slavery. Its main character, Sethe, based on real-life escaped slave Margaret Garner, kills one of her children to spare her a life of enslavement.

The impact of Beloved—and Morrison's writing output as a whole—cannot be overstated, said Angela Davis, the scholar, activist, and UC Santa Cruz professor emerita who will introduce Morrison at the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture.

Morrison, through fiction, has made social change, a feat many others haven't been able to accomplish through nonfiction writing and activism, Davis said.

"I don't think that our notion of freedom would be what it is without the impact of Toni Morrison."

Beloved "helped us think about U.S. history in an entirely different way," Davis said, and Morrison's specificity—including her elegantly crafted characters—helped change "the abstractness of the portrayal of slavery.… It became possible to humanize slavery, to remember that the system of slavery did not destroy the humanity of those whom it enslaved."

The two have been friends since the early '70s, when Morrison, while working as an editor at Random House, edited Davis's autobiography. During that period, Morrison was bringing out new works by uncompromising authors including the African American feminist writers Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones.

Morrison, once an outsider, went on to change the face of publishing, both as a writer and editor, said Paul Skenazy, professor emeritus of literature at UC Santa Cruz, who taught Morrison's work for years.

"At this point, more than a quarter century later, it's hard to remember how compact and insular the publishing world was before Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others made cracks in it," Skenazy said.

Morrison's book Song of Solomon is as smart and evocative as writing gets, Skenazy said.

"Her ability in that book to move across fantasy and the hard terms of black life; to turn folk stories into palpable mythologies that rule the everyday; to make a quest of forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded history: These are beautifully entangled in that book."

The silence of goodness
Writing gives Morrison more than the freedom to imagine worlds beyond her own. Her books allow her to explore a topic that has been tugging at her for more than 40 years, and which she will explore during the Santa Cruz lecture: "Literature and the Silence of Goodness."

Morrison believes an "obsession" with evil has crept into literature over the past century or so while the forces of good have been driven to the sidelines and compelled to bite their tongues.

Morrison thinks this preoccupation, which she credits in part to the horrors of World War I, also holds true in the media. She spoke of news reports that portrayed the Amish community as "freakish" when members of the religious group reached out to comfort the widow of an Amish man who took his own life after committing a killing spree that left five schoolgirls dead. TV broadcasts and newspapers "twisted" what Morrison considered to be a selfless refusal on the part of the community to seek vengeance.

She believes the media has a lurid obsession with things like mass killings, brazen kidnappings, and heinous abuse and neglect, and that it is simply "too easy" to let such forces dominate works of fiction.

Evil, she says, often has a superficial glamour in stories and novels: "I always think of evil with a top hat and a big band and a cape, a cane maybe, some shiny jewelry so you are very attracted by the glitter."

On the other hand, compelling portrayals of good are harder to pull off, Morrison said.

Nevertheless, "there really isn't anything else that humans ought to be cultivating and living for," she said. "The rest of it is petty and selfish: cartoonish almost."

She talks about her efforts to dramatize good without resorting to sentimentality. She mentioned the strong women who nurse an ailing woman back to health in her most recently published novel, Home. There is nothing warm or cuddly about these "country women who loved mean … They didn't waste their time or the patient's with sympathy and they met the tears of suffering with resigned contempt."

But these women are forces for good because they have an innate desire to heal and save lives. "When their maker said, 'What did you do?,' they didn't want to say, 'Well, uh.…'" Morrison said. "They had to answer."

Revealing revelations
Some readers may be surprised to hear Morrison's concerns about literary evil, considering its strong presence in so many of her books, which contain, among other things, a gang rape, gruesome depictions of slavery, and an act of infanticide.

Morrison concedes "there is a lot of sadness and melancholy among the people in my books," but "for me, there is always an ending in which somebody knows something extremely important that they didn't know before; the acquisition of knowledge is a gesture of mine toward goodness.

"The accumulation of events, theories, changes of mind, encounters, whatever is going on, at the end of the book, it tends to move toward some kind of epiphany that is a revelation of a better self."

As Morrison pointed out, during one horrific rape scene early in her novel Love, one character, Romen, refuses to participate and is shunned by his peers. Romen comes to realize he has repressed his instinctual desire to help the girl and ends up reaching out to her.

And the infanticide at the center of Beloved is a morally complex act of desperation. During the interview, Morrison spoke of her deliberate withholding of judgment of Sethe. "Suppose I knew definitely that my boys—my children—were going to be kidnapped, taken off, molested: What would I do? And I couldn't answer." (Morrison is the mother of two sons, Harold and Slade; Slade died in 2010 at age 45.)

Resisting cynicism
Morrison said she simply could not create her works if she wrote out of a place of cynicism or despair. This is not to say that her faith never wavers.

Sometimes the realm of politics and the cruelty of world events wear her down.

Once, 10 years ago, she was feeling especially "sad and disturbed," she said. "Whatever it was, it was paralyzing. Peter Sellars [the theater and opera director, who has collaborated with Morrison] called up as he often does on Christmas Day or during the holidays.… He said, 'How are you?,' and I said that I didn't feel very good.

"I said, 'You know, Peter, I can't write,' and I told him why I thought I couldn't, and he started shouting, 'No, no, no, no!' He said this is precisely the time when artists go to work, not when everything is fine but when things were difficult. Dire. This is when we're needed."

After that pep talk, she had a realization: "I thought to myself, 'God, think of all the writers who wrote in prisons.' In gulags, you know. I mean, it is just amazing. I felt a little ashamed but very happy that he said that. I never had a problem since."




Monday, September 08, 2014

Back from climbing Mt. Whitney at 330 a.m.

My trusty Mag-lite helped me make my way through the inky High Sierra darkness. Had a fine time up there with the exception of that final ascent, which made me quite woozy and a tad nauseous. Went to Dominican yesterday evening for treatment of minor frostbite but I should be just fine. This is the last camping trip for the book with the exception of the upcoming RV tour of the southwest.  By the way, I enjoyed meeting JMT hikers out there and I gave three of them a ride out from Onion Valley to Bishop, where we all shared a good meal at a Mexican restaurant and went out separate ways. More soon.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On reading The Grapes of Wrath on its 75th anniversary

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When I was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University in 2007-8, I used to drive my rattletrap of a car back and forth between San Jose and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with The Grapes of Wrath audiobook playing on my CD player. 

I listened to the book twice in a row, all 21 hours and five minutes of it in 42 installments. As the story unfolded, I projected the action onto the land in front of me. While an amoral used-car salesman ripped off desperate “Okies” on their way to California, my own jalopy leaked oil on Highway 280. When Noah Joad disappeared, I imagined him lost in the foothills above Palo Alto. Twice in a row the lapsed preacher John Casy got his head bashed by thug cops while I crossed Church and 22nd Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Casy said to his tormentors as I found myself trapped behind a stalled-out streetcar. To this day, that upscale neighborhood feels like a tragic place; the taint never fades. Never mind that The Grapes of Wrath took place worlds away, in the San Joaquin Valley.

To me, Steinbeck’s writing, at its best, is a lived experience. It doesn’t matter when or where you read or hear it. No matter how many times I revisit Grapes, I fool myself into thinking the Joads will find what they need in California.  John Casy will survive his confrontation with the police. The heartache and disappointment feel fresh every time. So does the shock of the book’s final image. 

Steinbeck believed in slow writing. It takes forever to get to California. We live through every mile with the Joads and their touring car, overstuffed with belongings and people and always on the verge of breakdown.

To mark the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, I got back in touch with my former colleagues at SJSU, including Paul Douglass, an English and American literature professor, and director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. “When I think of The Grapes of Wrath, I think of the remarkable way in which it embodies the agony and transcendence of its era,” he told me. “The dirt poor down low life of the transient population, uprooted and outcast, and yet at the same time, the luminosity of the human spirit revealed through the pressure of poverty and desperation.” I had a longer conversation with Shillinglaw, a recent President’s Scholar Award honoree, and a longtime professor of English and comparative literature at SJSU. She marked the 75th anniversary with her new book, On Reading the Grapes of Wrath (Penguin, $14.) Shillinglaw sat down with Catamaran to talk about the origins of The Grapes of Wrath and the reason it continues to enchant, infuriate and inspire generations of readers.   






Tuesday, August 05, 2014

coming soon from Catamaran Literary Reader: Beyond Wild: Gail Storey and Aspen Matis face the wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail




Coming soon from Catamaran Literary Reader at a bookstore or mailbox near you: the forthcoming issue of our magazine includes my brief essay on women facing the wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail, with a detailed Q & A with Gail Storey and Aspen Matis and with prominent mentions of Cheryl Strayed and Suzanne Roberts. There is no online version of the magazine at this time but you can find out where to buy it and how to describe by visiting us here.  Also, please get your hands on the current issue of Catamaran, which is another great one, with contributions from Paul Muldoon, an overlooked piece of writing from John Steinbeck, new work from Ursula K Le Guin and Nathaniel Mackey and my interview with Susan Shillinglaw about the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath's publication. I hope you're all having a good summer and I'll see you out in the mountains.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Cactuseaters Blog Tour

                               


Thank you to my friend Samuel Autman for asking me to participate in the Blog Tour, in which a group of writers talk about their latest projects and share a few words about their writing process. So here I am, taking part and passing it on. Read here about Samuel's writing process. Here goes:

1. What are you working on? For the last couple of years I have been working on a book that is now under contract with Henry Holt & Company. The working title is Soaked to the Bone. It is an embodied history of American camping, meaning that I must participate -- enthusiastically, and sometimes dangerously -- in every form of camping I write about. I am using a combination of research and history and my own adventures to tell the story of recreational camping's evolution from the late 1860s to the present day. Along the way I explore the world of glamping, survivalist camping, Leave No Trace practices and RV snow birding, among others.  There will be a few outrageous scenarios and a blend of comedy and weirdness, ecology, adventure, and contemplation.

2.  How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre? I have an 'all in' approach. I try very hard to be honest and candid in a way that serves the story and cuts to the truth of the situation. I try not to worry too much about having a narrative voice that is 100 percent cuddly and likable all the time. I think some of the strength of the work lies in my candor, my willingness to 'go there' and not flinch. 

3. Why do you write what I do? I'm a fairly shy person -- depending on the situation -- and kind of a bookworm, so travel writing gives me a license to see the world, while my Olympus recorder and writing pads and pens give me a new identity that makes me feel more comfortable cold-calling people or walking up to them at campsites and taking down their stories, finding out about their camping process, and asking all sorts of pesky questions that would be hard to ask if I didn't have a project and a mission as an excuse. Writing really is a way for me to engage with life. Every so often i hear people gripe that certain writers seem to live through something just so they can write about it. A few people even said that to me after my first book, The Cactus Eaters, came out. That may be true for some writers, but what about the rest of us who write about something just so we can live through it? 


4. How does your writing process work? I have a gargantuan Word file that serves as a kind of rolling scroll or possibilities bag. I just shoehorn bits of research and daily thoughts in there, and i have other files with saved Proquest documents and database files, with notes riffing on them, and separate folders for interviews.  In the early phases, I imagine my process as a great big dredging net, dragging the ocean floor. I just try to spread the net as widely as possible. At some point when I feel I have sufficient 'stuff' -- enough recollections, enough interviews and context -- i start creating a separate file, and I start roughing out a structure. Sometimes I'll create a summarized version of the text -- a kind of short- story version -- and rough it out from the best stuff I've recovered from the Monster File. I never, ever get it right the first time. My first drafts are embarrassing -- horrible. 


I have invited a couple of great folks to participate in the Blog Tour. I hope you hear from them soon! 




Monday, June 02, 2014

Battered scuzzy copies of the Cactus Eaters ...

Lately I've signed some seriously scary copies of my book. A few of them looked like somebody dropped them in a lake, rolled them down a hill, or cleaned their showers with them.  I signed them anyways. I am willing to sign anything except for a blank check. In other news, I'm heading to the Hoh rainforest very soon to spend time with the bugling elk and write about "quiet camping" for my new book. Also, thank you for your continued support of my first book. It keeps creeping along, slowly, inexorably, like a slimy but determined hermit crab at the bottom of the ocean.