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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 1

Ah, travel—asleep at 1 am Las Vegas time (PDT), then startled out of a now-forgotten dream at 4:30 am, an hour so ludicrous and detrimental to sanity that it should not even exist. Even milkmen and grumpy old cigar-smoking guys running newsstands would shake their heads and groan. My wife Kalene got up first and showered. I fell back asleep. Half an hour later, she woke me up to tell me that I could sleep another extra hour because we had gotten a text from Delta Airlines. Our flight was delayed an hour and a half. I had never been grateful for a late flight before, and for a moment, I flashed back to last year’s AWP trip, when my flight to Long Beach got delayed so long that I missed my connection and had to head for Seattle the next morning. But once I realized the implications of what Kalene was saying, though, I nestled deep into the covers and crashed until she dragged me out at 6 am.

The fingers of my right hand and the muscles in my forearm have ached all day because I spent over thirty minutes last night setting up our DVR for the next week. Our Cox remote only recognizes that you’ve pushed a button after you’ve done so four or five times, so multiply that by recording five to ten shows a night for the next week, and you can probably understand why I’m sore. (“Why doesn’t he just set up a series recording?” you might wonder. It’s because our multi-room DVRs sometimes just decide that they don’t feel like doing what you’ve told them to do, and often, having little time to watch TV on a given day, I only discover the problem when I’m trying to set up more recordings. The joys of cable! “Why doesn’t he get DirecTV or Dish or something?” you might be asking. It’s because we currently live in an apartment that we rented sight unseen upon accepting employment in Las Vegas. Ours is apparently the one apartment in the building that, for shadowy reasons I only partially understand, is not allowed to have any equipment mounted on the exterior walls. Whee!)

Out the door at 7 am, we dumped on bag of trash in the dumpsters and took Broadbent to Russell to the freeway to Flamingo, cursing every slow driver and flipping off every red light. We arrived at our parking facility, the Silver Se7ens Casino (their spelling; don’t get me started), though to tell you the truth, we picked another place on the Internet but somehow got booked at the one place we knew we wanted to avoid. The last time we parked there, the shuttle rules were so labyrinthine that we missed it and had to pay a cab to take us to the airport, even though we had already paid for parking and the shuttle. When we got back to Vegas, we went to the wrong level of McCarran Airport and missed the shuttle back, so we had to take another cab to Silver Se7ens, meaning we paid for two shuttle rides and never actually even saw the vehicle. Imagine our displeasure at clicking on the “book it” button for off-site parking at a different hotel and then finding that they had dumped us back in Silver Se7ens’ lap anyhow.

We were instructed to park, unload our luggage, go inside to let them know we had arrived, and then park the car. Knowing that we were only going to be there for a minute, we parked behind a shuttle van. My daughter Maya and I unloaded while Kalene ran inside. As soon as we shut the trunk, a burly security guard tooled up in his golf cart and said, “I’m gonna need you to move that car. This area is for shuttle parking.” When I told him that we were there for the shuttle and were simply waiting for our parking assignment, he said, “Oh, okay. So you’ll just be here a minute. That’s good, because the shuttle is gonna be back [looks at his watch, incredulous] any minute now.” Then he looked at me expectantly.

“I knew something like this would happen at this dump,” I said to Maya. I didn’t even bother to ask what the big white bus-looking thing that we had parked behind was, if not a shuttle. I simply loaded all our bags back in the trunk. As I finished, Kalene came out with our parking permit, and we drove around to the garage and up to the fourth level, where we left the car, lugged our bags to an elevator, zoomed down to the casino, fought our way through tourists, and finally arrived back outside, twenty feet from where we started.

The shuttle, whose imminent arrival had so concerned the guard, showed up thirty minutes later. It was a van, much smaller than the bus-like vehicle we had so foolishly thought it might be fine to park behind for five minutes. We piled inside and took the ten-minute trip to Departures, where, as I disembarked, I was promptly almost flattened by a bus being driven by, it seemed, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Inside the airport, there was virtually no line at the bag-check counter or security, and no one decided that today would be a good day to pull the Rileys out of line and wand them and pick at their laptops and stare suspiciously at their phone chargers. We made it to our gate in plenty of time.

For breakfast, a big slice of pizza from the airport’s Metro outpost. Though our flight was delayed, the gate personnel were on duty already, and they worked their magic so that we could all sit together. When we booked the flight, we had chosen seats next to each other, but of course that didn’t take, and they had spread us all over the plane, me in the fourteenth row and Kalene and Maya in different sections somewhere in the twenties. Now we all boarded together, sat together, and fell asleep together as soon as the plane cleared the runway.

Twenty minutes later, I woke up. My memories from Delta Flight 1851, with service from Las Vegas to Minneapolis:

  • When asked for my beverage choice, I picked coffee, which I never do on flights because it sometimes hits my bowels and bladder like a sledgehammer, sending me scurrying for the insidious inventions known as airplane lavatories, so small and cramped and loud that it simulates the effects of riding in a coffin to one’s own funeral via a major freeway. This cup was good to me, though. I got up only once afterward.
  • However, we were flying coach, and when the airline personnel moved our seats, they put Kalene and Maya in my row, near the front of the plane, so the coach lavatory was approximately a quarter-mile away from us, the way often impeded by the refreshment carts, which are engineered to fit (barely) in the tiny, cramped aisle in much the same way that a drawer fits into a cabinet. Of course, we could have just headed up to the much-closer business-class potty, but airplanes are such obvious symbols of the American class system that I’m always half afraid that some sonorous claxon is going to sound as soon as I pass the curtain, that some air marshal will tackle me and cuff me and then lecture the rest of the coach-riding riffraff on the perils of not knowing one’s place. So, yeah, I waited on the carts to move.
  • Speaking of class—for those who have never been on an airplane, you have more room in business class, and a flight attendant dedicated to serving the ten or twelve of you on that side of the curtain. When I have flown business class, I have known the exquisite sensation of stretching my legs all the way out without kicking anyone or banging my shin on the underside of a seat, taking off an inch of skin. I have had someone take my coat and hang it up for me. I have had attendants call me by name. I have been asked for my beverage preference and gotten whatever I wanted without extra cost. Contrast that with coach, where you are crammed in two or three to each side of the aisle in a configuration that a sardine would dismiss as too restrictive. You don’t get premium drinks unless you pay for them, credit cards only; you get a small plastic cup of juice or soda, perhaps a cup of coffee. Today, I watched business-class customers be served full breakfasts in real dishes and on actual platters. Then I watched those who had upgraded to a “comfort seat” be served from a fruit-and-muffin basket. Then it was our turn. I got a cup of coffee in a small Starbucks cup and two ginger snaps. Two. Ginger. Snaps. Don’t tell me there’s no American underclass.
  • Across from me, some guy spent the entire flight frantically rearranging everything on his computer. We weren’t close enough for me to see what he was doing, so I didn’t feel like I was snooping as I watched him open multiple windows and cut parts of a document out and paste that part into an email and send it and then go to other documents and cut out parts of them and paste them into different emails and send them and on and on, ceaselessly, for three hours. He looked like one of those computer experts you see in action films, the ones who create a sophisticated virus and hack a major secured network in thirty seconds with nary a typo. Maybe those people really do exist, though from the images I spotted, this guy appeared to work for an auto manufacturer.
  • On the way, I read the first chapter of a novel that won the Pulitzer for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Within a page and a half, I found what appeared to be two misplaced modifiers. Now let me assure you that the chapter was mostly excellent, in terms of grounding and characterization, deft use of exposition a bit at a time, and so forth. But those modifiers haunted me. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have been enough to get most people rejected, regardless of their manuscript’s strengths, and that led me to a long, dark reflection on the entire publishing industry and how random things sometimes seem.
  • People sleep ugly on planes—necks cranked hard to one side, giving them the appearance of having been throttled to death; mouths open wide enough for you to throw things in there; strangers’ heads falling onto other people’s shoulders. It makes me wonder what I looked like during the first twenty minutes of the flight.

Arrival in Minnesota at approximately 3:20 CST—naturally, we deplaned at a gate so desolate that we needed to take a taxi just to reach the taxi stand. Without this option, we hoofed it for God only knows how long, barely making it to baggage claim before somebody hauled our luggage away.

Observation—on its outskirts, Minneapolis in April looks much like Mississippi in January. Downtown seems shiny and clean, even when it’s overrun by writers…and today, it wasn’t nearly as overrun as it’s going to get.

Our room in the Millennium Hotel is nice but small. The bathroom door is either so modern or so old school that it doesn’t have a lock; it slides shut, and then you have to trust your roomies not to burst in on you. It’s got two double beds, meaning that Maya gets one to herself, while Kalene and I have to adjust to not having our queen-sized mattress. I expect some elbowing to occur later. The hotel has no distilled water for my cPap machine, and there is apparently no pharmacy or grocery outlet within walking distance, so I am faced with the rather silly task of paying for a taxi in order to procure a gallon of water. That, or not, you know, breathe while I sleep.

The registration process was a breeze this year but for the walk. From the hotel to the convention center to the specific part where registration occurs is about as far as the hike from our airport gate to the taxies. I’ve gotten my exercise for today.

Dinner at the hotel bar—Scottish salmon with mixed veggies, fingerling potatoes, and arugula. It was an excellent dish. To wash it down, I tried a local brew called a Surly Furious. If there were ever a beer made to fit my personality, it’s that one. As I joked on Twitter, it even has the bitter aftertaste.

We retired to the room by 6:30 pm CST, where I have thrown this dispatch together through the fog of exhaustion that makes any grading or work on a manuscript unlikely. Perhaps tomorrow, after a few sessions but before Karen Russell’s keynote speech.

It seems to me that writers gather together like this, in spite of snafus and grumpy airport personnel and the bone-deep exhaustion that sets in before you even get your lanyard, because, in part, writing is a solitary, lonely activity that much of the world can’t wait to dismiss. From people who get up in the morning and make the effort to insult you on Twitter to the comments sections of website articles you’ve written to the odd guy who shows up at your signing with blood in his eye, the average artist in any medium must first struggle against his/her own sense of inadequacy and a lack of funding, against a government that devalues what keeps us human, against hatred and small-minded sniping and careless words. Here, at AWP and other events like it, we can come together, support each other, reach out and make contact.

Yet these places also exacerbate one’s sense of never having met one’s goals. There is a comparative element that is at times inescapable—“look how little I’ve done compared to so and so.” There is, if your specific friends don’t show up, the lack of the very community that you’ve come to seek.

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be able to look back and measure the effects of this year’s conference on our self-images, our contacts, our careers, our art. Now, we’re busy living it. This was my first day.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

Visit my website: http://officialbrettriley.com/

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Screenplay Annoucement

For those who haven’t heard, I adapted my short story “An Element of Blank” (first published in The Evansville Review) into a feature-length screenplay entitled Candy’s First Kiss. Last week, I received word that this manuscript won the horror/sci-fi grand prize at the New York Screenplay Contest.

You can find a list of all 2014 winners here.

Agents, studios, and others interested in optioning this screenplay can contact me at my email address, brett@officialbrettriley.com.

#MyWritingProcess #BlogTour

“My Writing Process” Blog Tour

My friend C.D. Mitchell tagged me as part of the Blog Tour. I always appreciate the opportunity to publicize my work and that of other writers, so for whatever it’s worth, this is my contribution.

What am I working on these days?

I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. Due to spending several years in graduate school without much time to submit my work, I’ve got a pretty good backlog of text that I’m shopping. My somewhat-experimental novel-in-stories The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light dropped about this time last year. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine online retailers. I’m spreading the word about it as much as I can.

I’m currently submitting two works to independent publishers. One is Mulvaney House, another somewhat-experimental novel. It traces the (d)evolution of a single house in southeast Arkansas from the late 19th through the early 21st centuries. It is first inhabited by ill-fated Irish immigrants; later, its ownership passes to a disillusioned World War I veteran. Because that situation does not end well either, the house becomes the local “haunted,” “cursed” place that all the smart kids avoid and that all the cool kids want to explore. In the 1960s, it becomes the setting for a star-crossed interracial romance, and in the early 21st century, three teenagers spend the night there just to prove that they can. Serious carnage ensues.

I’m also submitting my second story collection, tentatively titled Bedtime Stories for Insomniacs. Most of the stories therein have been published. In terms of subject matter, it’s a pretty eclectic book. There’s a serial killer story, a couple of tales that make use of mythological creatures, some gritty realism, and some humor.

I’ve gotten some kind words about the projects, but whether they will ever see the light of day is anyone’s guess.

Oh, you thought I was through? Not yet—I’m also shopping The Dead House, a literary ghost story. It’s a novel-length work set in central Texas, though many of the characters are from south Louisiana. The book is a supernatural thriller detective fish-out-of-water story. I’ve gotten a few nibbles from literary agents; I’m hoping to land one soon.

In terms of new work, I’m currently drafting a post-apocalyptic novel set in the South. I’m also three stories into a new cycle that will, I hope, become a book one day.

I recently submitted a screenplay that I adapted from one of my published stories. As I have no contacts in Hollywood, I don’t expect it to go anywhere, but hey, they have to option somebody’s script, right?

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I’ve always thought that this kind of question is best answered by critics and scholars, not writers. I just tell stories. Some editors have compared various stories I’ve written to writers as diverse as Jack Kerouac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard, and Ernest Hemingway. (I’m not egotistical enough to say that I agree, but I really appreciated their saying it.) I think a couple of my stories read like they were written by the love child of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. What all this means, I think, is that you can get a pretty good read on my basic format and style, but the content and how I employ that style may vary widely from piece to piece. I try not to write the same thing twice, and if I do delve into an area that I’ve visited before, I try to change perspectives, or voices, or tones, or something that will make the work seem a little fresher.

I don’t know what my genre is, other than “literary,” so no matter what similarities and differences a given reader sees between my work and that of any other serious writer, they’re probably on the right track, even if what they say contradicts somebody else.

Why do I write what I do?

Why does anybody write what they do? I never know what to make of this question. I can only tell you this: I believe that real writers do what they do because they are compelled. You don’t do it for fame. Writing literary fiction for money is a mug’s game. You don’t do it for all the groupies because most of us don’t have any (well, maybe Chuck Palahniuk). You do it because you can’t imagine a life where you don’t do it.

When I don’t get my two daily writing sessions in, I feel incomplete and guilty. When I don’t get at least one session, I feel out of sorts, angry with myself, despairing about the time that has passed. When I don’t write at all, I want to punch somebody, often myself. I have stories and people and dramatic situations in my head. Some of them are funny or sad and sick or cool. Others will probably never really go anywhere. But I have to find out what might work, or I go a little nuts.

As for where I get my ideas, my standard answer is, “A warehouse in Poughkeepsie. Don’t tell anybody.”

Seriously, though, they come to me as I live—sometimes from a bit of conversation I overhear, sometimes from an image I see in life or a movie or a magazine, sometimes from that place deep within my imagination where everything begins with “What if…?”

I write down every idea that I can. I’ve got files of them, ideas for stories and novels and essays and screenplays and comic book series and TV shows. I add to the piles fairly regularly. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to all of them. Some of them probably suck. My job is to write as many of them as I can, and to write them to the best of my ability, and hope that some agent, editor, or publisher will believe in me, in my story. After that, you pray that the piece will find its audience, but you can’t really control that, or the publishing side. You can only write and submit and not give up.

How does my Writing Process work?

I look over my list of ideas and see which one speaks to me at that given moment. Sometimes I’ll outline how I imagine the story will go, but even when I do, I allow for organic and spontaneous growth, when the people in the story do something that I didn’t expect. Most of the time, I just write until I complete the narrative arc. I do a full draft without worrying too much about how well it all holds together.

With my book, I revised extensively, several times. With the novel I’m currently shopping, I revised ten times before I ever submitted it. I’ll tinker with any given story for a couple of drafts until it seems to chug along pretty well.

Then I submit.

In this business, you have to expect rejection unless you’re already a household name. To succeed at any level at all, you have to strike the right combination of talent, learned skill, perseverance, and luck—getting the right piece to the right gatekeeper at the right time. Unless you have personal contacts at an agency or publisher, that’s about all you can do.

I’ll generally send out a piece to a half-dozen places. If nobody takes it, I revise again and find other places to submit. I keep doing that until I find the right home for it or I decide that maybe it isn’t as good as I thought it was. I have yet to self-publish anything, but I’m not above it if the industry never accepts what I truly believe is a story worth telling.

Once someone accepts a piece, I am perfectly willing and able to tinker with it if an editor sees areas that need work. Sometimes I insist on leaving something as is if I feel changing it will fundamentally undercut my integrity as a writer and the story I want to tell, but I pick my battles carefully. I have yet to meet an editor with whom I could not work amicably and productively.

As for my day-to-day process, once I’ve chosen a project of any length or type, I try to write at least twice a day for an hour each time. It isn’t always possible, but I do my best. I tend to work on a couple of projects at once—a potential novel chapter and a story, a story and a screenplay, etc. In grad school, I was forced to multi-task, and I have yet to break the habit completely. Right now, for instance, I’m revising a text and working on a new story. I’ll revise for a session and write for a session. I’ve found that setting time limits, rather than specific word counts, works better for me because of my other time constraints.

I’d like to thank C.D. Mitchell for tagging me.In turn, I am tagging two of my writer friends who occasionally blog, Robin Becker and Sean Hoade.

Robin Becker is a graduate school buddy of mine. She has recently accepted a teaching position at Ole Miss. Her zombie novel, Brains, is available in bookstores and online.

Sean Hoade is a fellow Las Vegan. He has been a prolific self-publisher; his latest work, Deadtown Abbey, is hilarious and weird, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He has recently contracted to write a series of undead-themed books for a traditional publisher, so look for them in the near future., coming to bookstores near you.

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 5

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

5.         Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Back in graduate school, we thought about making “I Survived Gravity’s Rainbow” t-shirts, but we never did. Perhaps it’s because we knew that, in spite of the book’s labyrinthine plot and dozens of characters, the book is something to be savored, not survived.

World War II is on, and Tyrone Slothrop finds himself meandering through the European theater, seeking Rocket 00000, a particularly deadly weapon. To say much more about the plot would be futile and just plain mean, since half the fun (and frustration) of reading the book for the first time is trying to keep things straight—who’s who, what they’re doing, where they’re doing it, and why. Dead people don’t necessarily stay that way. Kinky sex is had. Double agents appear; limericks and bawdy songs supplement the traditional narrative; and eventually, our protagonist—what? Explodes? Disappears? Evaporates? Becomes irrelevant?

Gravity’s Rainbow is truly a tour de force. You may have to read it two or three times before you start to get a real handle on it, but it rewards repeated readings. Though it takes place in wartime Europe, it is one of the quintessential texts of Postmodernism, and a book that is somehow very much American.

Other texts that would work well: Mason and Dixon; The Crying of Lot 49; Inherent Vice.

4.         Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

A candidate on the list of books that might actually qualify as the mythical “great American novel,” Melville’s Moby-Dick is another book that rewards repeated readings. From what I have gathered from talking to different people, the usual experience goes something like this. First reading—you get lost in all the footnoted material (or, worse, you read an edition with no footnotes and stay lost half the time) and the minutia of cetology, and so you’re afraid you missed half the plot. Second reading—you retain more of the information; you notice material that you may have missed the first time; and you realize that, in terms of plot, not a lot actually happens. Third reading—you start to appreciate the genius.

About that plot: our narrator, Ishmael, arrives in Nantucket, determined to go to sea, basically because he is sick of people in general (a feeling with which I can relate). He meets Queequeg the harpooner in a hotel. Together, they sign on to the Pequod, a whaler.  The ship sails, and they meet the monomaniacal Ahab, who reveals his true agenda—to find and kill the creature that took his leg, a white whale named Moby-Dick. The Pequod sails about the world’s oceans, asking other ships if they’ve seen Moby-Dick, killing a couple of different kinds of whales, and philosophizing about the nature of whales, humanity, obsession, revenge, religion, history, and a dozen other subjects. Eventually they find Moby-Dick; things go badly.

That’s about it.

In between all that, we get some of the most eloquent first-person narration in world letters and from the American Romantic era in particular. The action sequences are detailed and thrilling. The philosophy is thought-provoking. The symbolism is deep.

As Ishmael says, “Surely these things are not without meaning.”

The result of all this is a book that is absolutely essential. I never get tired of it. If you have the wherewithal to stick by it, it will grow on you.

Other texts that would work well: Typee; Billy Budd; Redburn; White Jacket; The Confidence-Man; the collected short works, which would include one of my favorite stories in existence, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

3.         The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

War literature is often hard to take—for the former soldier, who might find him/herself forced to relive painful memories; for the civilian, who often has to wade through buckets of blood and gore, gallows humor, and the foulest of foul language; for the writer, who must give part of him/herself and live down in the trenches with the characters. Yet this kind of writing is crucial to the evolution of the world and the world spirit of which we are all a part. Art does not have to be pretty; in fact, it often needs to be ugly, horrendous, painful, so that it can drag kicking and screaming into the light things that we might otherwise gloss in order to avoid discomfort.

I’ve said this before. I say it again because Tim O’Brien’s—what? Linked story collection? Novel-in-stories?—The Things They Carried manages to be ugly and painful and unutterably beautiful, often all at the same time.

It’s an abstract examination of concepts like war and bravery at the same that it’s a concrete representation of how those concepts can manifest. It is a minute examination of how war affects the individual psyche even as it follows a group of men and the ways that they connect and disconnect, laugh and cry, live and perish, zapped while zipping.

From the opening story that scrutinizes all the different ideas that the words “things” and “carry” might mean, to the unravelling of the very concept of narrative in “How to Tell a True War Story”; from the coming-of-age-in-a-pressure-cooker tension of “On the Rainy River” to the gender-complicated heartbreak of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”; from the personal recriminations of “In the Field” to the desperate search for closure in “Field Trip”; from the loss and disconnection of “Speaking of Courage” to the redemptive power of stories in “The Lives of the Dead,” every single line and word in this book is indispensable.

Along the way, O’Brien examines such American concepts as patriotism and courage, individualism and group membership, language and action, war and that elusive concept we call peace.

The Things They Carried is a staggering artistic achievement and a deeply personal experience. Buy it yesterday. Read it now. Remember it forever.

Other texts that would work well: Going After Cacciato; If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; July, July.

2.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

I knew that McCarthy would make the list, and that, if it were truly an ordered list, he would be near the top. I was not sure which text I would go with. How do you choose between Blood Meridian and the shattering experience that is The Road? Or the Border Trilogy? Even the short and highly disturbing Child of God or the mediocre-according-to-critics No Country for Old Men? Suttree, Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper…any of them are worthy of this list.

While I almost went with The Road, and might well do so if you asked me to remake this list tomorrow, I must, at least for today, choose Blood Meridian: or, the Evening Redness in the West as the McCarthy book I cannot do without.

The scene: the American southwest in the late 19th century. Dramatis Personae: The Kid, our protagonist, a teenaged survivor with a vicious streak a mile wide; The Judge, the towering, hairless, possibly supernatural philosopher who just might literally be a devil; Glanton, the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty thugs who scalps Native Americans for fun and profit; and Glanton’s gang, any one of whom might make the subject of a long case study in socio- and/or psychopathy.

Based on historical events, Blood Meridian chronicles the travels and acts of this gang as the drown the southwest in gore, not all of it from “Indians.” We are witness to literal massacres. Death is never further away than one careless word or unguarded facial expression. Through it all, McCarthy’s unforgettable characters ponder the nature of humanity, of war, of freedom, of God. The Judge’s speeches alone are endlessly quotable and chilling.

Some find the book hopelessly bleak, and it’s tough to argue against that characterization, except…

Well, near the end, the Kid shows us a couple of glimmers of a human soul. What happens to him as a result is wrenching and ambiguous.

Several years ago, I gave the book to a relative who wanted a good read. The next time I saw her, she said, “What the heck did you get me into?”

Pick up the book and find out for yourself.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named texts. Start with The Road, which won more awards than a Spielberg film, and go from there.

1.         Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.

Among the world’s people of letters, Faulkner has perhaps been the biggest influence on my own work, though he might have to duke it out with anybody else on this list (and a few dozen others) for that honor on any given day. He’s also another writer whose works are almost impossible to choose from. Even his minor works (if you believe in the viability of such a term) are good, thought-provoking reads.

During the 1920s and 30s, Faulkner went on a roll that is among the most creatively satisfying in history. The works normally described as his masterpieces were written during that time—not just GD,M but also his most complex work, Absalom, Absalom! (which was originally in this spot); his master class in point of view and voice, The Sound and the Fury; his insightful examination of race and class, Light in August; his surprisingly pot-boiling novel, Sanctuary; his story collection/novel-in-stories The Unvanquished, which takes us through the Civil War and beyond; and his OTHER master study in point of view and voice, the darkly comic and deeply sad As I Lay Dying.

One of my graduate school professors, a national authority on Faulkner and southern literature, once called Go Down, Moses Faulkner’s greatest work about race. That is, of course, debatable. But there can be no debate that this book—another collection/novel-in-stories—is a masterpiece of creative energy and daring.

Focusing on the families of old Carothers McCaslin, an antebellum plantation patriarch, the book begins in pre-Civil War times with the hilarious, deadpan, at times slapstick yet still dramatic tale “Was.” We first learn that there are two sides to old Carothers’s family—the white side and the black side, the latter of which resulting from his forced miscegenation—i.e., rape—of his female slaves, thus the references to Tomey’s Turl as “that damn half-white McCaslin.” The characters we meet in “Was” are the ancestors of those we’ll meet in the other stories, notably McCaslin Edmonds, Ike McCaslin (who would inherit and, out of shame, repudiate the land of his fathers), Carothers Edmonds, and Lucas Beauchamp, the African-American descendent of Old Carothers by the male line.

What follows in these stories is often funny; see, for instance, the way that Lucas outsmarts all the educated white men in the area. It is often shocking and emotionally draining; see “Pantaloon in Black” for one example. It is often confusing; try reading the second half of “The Bear” just once and see if you can keep it all straight. But the book is always fascinating and powerful.

Here are only a few topics you will encounter: family connections; how race impacts family connections in the south; economic class, and how race impacts it in the south; gender roles and assumptions, and how race impacts them in the south; the disappearance of nature in the face of encroaching urbanization and development (look for the heartbreaking images in “The Bear,” a story that is mythic in its scope and aims); the responsibility of an individual for his sons—or his fathers; how we relate to our elders; and the illusory nature of what we often call progress.

Look for characters like those named above and Sam Fathers, who brings to the book his own convoluted history;  Boon Hoggenback, the backwoods anti-marksman who loves his dog more than his own life; and the Beauchamps, whose familial drama is as powerful in its own way as anything in literature.

You can’t go wrong with Faulkner. If you start with this book, look up a family tree so you can keep track of who’s who and how they are related. Then sit back and watch the master work.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named works; The Uncollected Stories; The Town; The Hamlet; Soldier’s Pay; The Wild Palms; Intruder in the Dust.

There you go—the top 25 books on my ideal bookshelf, at least for now. If you haven’t read them, get started. You’re never too young—or too old—to appreciate greatness.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 2

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#20.     Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin.

One of the best works by a great 20th-century author, Going to Meet the Man is a collection of short stories that examine, among other issues, the ways that racism scars both the oppressed and the oppressors. Baldwin deals with issues that mainstream America has worked hard to sweep under the rug—not just racism, but also sexism, classism, and homophobia—and, like the best art, he drags those issues back into the light. Art can be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be, and it often needs to be something else. Baldwin is not afraid to take his work to those places.

From the opening familial drama “The Rockpile” to the religion-meets-secularism-meets-race-meets-sex story “The Outing,” from the oft-anthologized “Sonny’s Blues” to the absolutely devastating and horrifying title story (one that always freaks out my students), this collection is essential, not just to your bookshelf but to America.

Other texts that would work well: Go Tell It on the Mountain.

#19.     Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore may be the best writer that most people don’t seem to have heard of, and Birds of America is one of the best short story collections most people don’t seem to own. Combining wit with a sharp eye for detail, Moore creates works of great beauty, hilarity, deep sadness. Plus, she’s got some of the most interesting titles out there.

In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” she examines the everyday tragedy of the badly sick child with keen insight. “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” looks at how important pets can be in our lives and the different ways that people grieve—even people who, ostensibly, should feel both happy and lucky. “Real Estate” takes the reader into a life that has gone horribly wrong in many ways. The stories are full of death, language so sharp it may cut you, pathos, emotional distance. If you have never experienced this collection, do yourself a favor and buy it today.

Other texts that would work well: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

18.       Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Whenever I want to feel transcendental, I read either Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my experience, Emerson is a bit too esoteric for modern readers outside academia; sometimes he’s too esoteric for me, and I read/write/teach literature for a living. Thoreau is more accessible and just as eloquent.

For those who don’t know the “plot” of this nonfiction work—back in the mid-19th century, Thoreau decided to put aside most material things and squat near Walden Pond, a body of water close by Lynn, Massachusetts. For a little over two years, Thoreau lived there in solitude, welcoming the occasional visitor and walking about the pond and township whenever the desire arose. He lived as simply as possible, relied mostly on himself, and pondered the nature of society even as he removed himself from it. In Thoreau’s own words:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

What Thoreau discovered—about society, about humanity, about nature, about himself—is worth your time. Is progress really progress? Thoreau thinks not, and he articulates this idea in ways that would later find echoes in literary/popular cultural figures such as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” he says. “It rides upon us.”

Structured through specific chapters that deal with the work’s major ideas, Walden is part early environmentalism, part spiritual journey, part philosophical treatise, part memoir, and fully worthy of its place on my ideal bookshelf.

Other texts that would work well: I’d seek out his various essays and poems—perhaps start with Collected Essays and Poems, which contains “Resistance to Civil Government” (sometimes called “Civil Disobedience”) and other important works like “Slavery in Massachusetts”—or, lacking that, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

17.       Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

I love poetry, but I’m only putting a few works on this list because I’m mainly a fiction guy. No ideal bookshelf of mine could ever be complete, though, without Walt Whitman’s masterpiece. Often credited, rightly or wrongly, with inventing what many call “free verse” (T.S. Eliot’s claim that it doesn’t exist notwithstanding), Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime. He saw his work as being just as organic as the sprouts after which it was named, and he often let the poems grow, often trimmed them, let some of them die and planted seeds of others.

From the simple missions statement found in “One’s Self I Sing” to the complex, multifaceted “Song of Myself”; from the passionate, some say shocking, sensuality of “I Sing the Body Electric” to the melancholy of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; from the national spirit of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to the deeply personal yet universal “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Whitman’s work spans the universe, the body, the soul. It erases borders between traditional dichotomies. It feeds the soul in ways that resemble the effects of holy texts. Indeed, one of my old professors used to say that when she wanted to be uplifted, she read one of two texts: the Bible or Leaves of Grass.

If you have never read Whitman, it takes some getting used to—the long lines that often seem to (but don’t really) meander, the catalogues, the odd spellings, the repetition. But Whitman is worth the effort. Pick up the book today; he stops somewhere waiting for you.

Other texts that would work well: try one of the collected prose volumes. Concentrate on Specimen Days. If you’re not in the mood for prose, support the works of another great 19th-century poet—Emily Dickinson or the in-my-opinion-underrated-as-a-poet Stephen Crane.

16.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Huck Finn is often wrongly dismissed as a children’s book. If you dismiss it as such, you’re making a mistake (and probably thinking of Tom Sawyer). Twain’s masterpiece is about a child, but the themes and ideas are very much adult-oriented.

Huck Finn is also often dismissed as a racist text. Critics who call it racist are right to a certain extent, though not because of the use of the “n-word.” That onerous word does appear far too much for comfort, but that’s part of Twain’s point. Twain was a Realist who, by definition, believed that literature ought to record life as it is, not as it should be. Southern white people used that word constantly. So do Twain’s characters. The novel’s (unintentional) racism lies in Twain’s failure to create realistic black characters rather than caricatures.

Still, when your young white protagonist chooses to go to hell rather than turn in his enslaved friend; when he makes the conscious decision to help Jim escape in spite of everything society has tried to make him believe; when he recognizes that those on top of the social ladder rest at the bottom of the moral hierarchy, we might recognize the book as a flawed but genuine attempt to critique racism, not perpetuate it.

“It’s enough to make a body ashamed of the human race,” Huck says in reference to how two white conmen trick rural rubes out of their cash. “He had a dream, and it shot him,” Huck says about Tom Sawyer’s misguided Romanticism. And when Huck decides to “light out for the Territories” rather than stay in a corrupt society, Twain reveals his own beliefs about what he once called the “damned human race.”

Huck Finn is often hilarious. It is often thought-provoking. It is often touching. But to the discerning reader, it is never anything but one of the finest pieces of literary art ever produced. If your school system bans the book, move, because you’re surrounded by idiots. Read this imperfect critique of American racism, this adventure story, this comedy, this living novel and join the conversation about a truly American text. Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that all 20th century literature comes from Huck Finn. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does cast one of the long shadows in which we writers labor and create.

Other texts that would work well: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Life on the Mississippi.

Join us, won’t you?

More soon…

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com