Q & A #85 – Johanna Garton, “Edge of the Map”

The story about Edge of the Map is as intriguing as the narrative itself.

First, the many ways in which Christine Boskoff’s family was intertwined with Johanna Garton’s family–including parallel/coincidental stops in Wisconsin, Colorado, and China.

And how many non-fiction books out there were started by a parent and finished by one of their children?

Even without those factors, Johanna Garton’s Edge of the Map is riveting in its own right–and the backstory about family interconnections and how the book project got started are all downplayed in favor of shining the spotlight as much as possible on an extraordinary athlete.

Christine Boskoff.

Johanna Garton was kind enough to answer a few questions by email. A full review of Edge of the Map follows.

++

Question: Lots of questions about Christine Boskoff coming right up, but what was it like to pick up a project your mother started? Did she have a narrative approach already in mind? Any initial chapters drafted? Did your mother consult with you after the baton was passed?

Johanna Garton: A mix of emotions, from sadness that she’d no longer be able to continue herself, to exhilaration knowing that I was now holding onto a story which I could craft into something unique within the mountaineering narrative genre.  She had intended to write a book that would have read more like a traditional biography, while I was more interested in writing an adventure story.  She hadn’t drafted any chapters, though had done a ton of research that took many months to sort through.  After I began writing, I consulted with her occasionally when I needed advice on direction or character development.  She was able to read the final, published version of the book when it was first released six months ago. 

Question:  I read books about mountain climbers who go into extreme situations and I start each book thinking, maybe this time I’ll understand the appeal. It all comes down to “why?” I admired Christine’s repeated interest in getting to know foreign cultures and distant lands, but it still comes down to wanting to put your body into those brutal conditions and, of course, risking your life. Did you have a good sense of those motivations going in? Did you understand them better at the end?

Johanna Garton

Johanna Garton: I had very similar questions when I started, and this is one of the reasons I found the project so compelling!  I wanted to understand the motivations and drive, and though I think this is a timeless question that can be answered a hundred ways, I do feel I understand parts of this mentality better now.  It’s become clear to me that, like a passion ANY of us may have, the desire to climb high peaks is something that makes mountaineers feel most alive.  Such that it is truly the opposite of the death wish that it’s perceived to be by outsiders.  Because there’s this elevated level of risk or perceived risk, I think the sport draws people who feel entitled to criticize choices climbers make in a way that the passions that the rest of us have rarely ARE.  That became a source of frustration for me, as I think it can be for climbers/mountaineers.  Quite simply, they believe that without climbing, they wouldn’t be living their authentic lives, just as the rest of us would feel if we were not pursuing more conventional passions such as parenting, fostering animals, worshipping God, traveling the world, etc.  Certainly families and children add a complicating factor, but I do believe most climbers take into consideration those in their lives when weighing what level of risk to accept within their sport.

Question: Did your own trek to the Lenggu Monastery make you want to climb higher, or was that enough? Did you consider putting yourself into the narrative or including the story of your own trek as part of the book itself? 

Johanna Garton: That was plenty!  I am ten times LESS likely to try to summit Mount Everest now than I was before writing the book.  I just know far too much!  I briefly considered putting myself in the story a little more, but it felt so rich with characters already that I decided it best to include just a small portion of my trek in the Author’s Note and leave the rest for discussion after the book was released if there was interest!

Question: What would you ask Christine if you had the chance?

Johanna Garton: I’d ask her why she and Charlie continued on that final ascent of Genyen. There were a number of questionable factors and it seems a wild convergence that was atypical for their usually-conservative judgement.

Question:  What do you think you brought to the story as a female writer profiling a female mountaineer?

Johanna Garton: Prior to Edge of the Map, almost no books existed in the category of mountaineering lit which focused on an American female mountaineer.  In addition, it was very clear to me that most books in this genre are written by men.  I knew that what I wanted to write was going to have humanity and depth of personality, something I think can be lacking in other mountaineering narratives.

Question:  Why hasn’t her story been told in book form until now? It’s kind of hard to believe. Do you think that’s an extension of her humility? 

Johanna Garton: It IS hard to believe!  I call it the greatest unknown story in modern mountaineering and absolutely it’s an extension of her deep humility.  Some of it may have to do with the fact that she was at the top of her career when men, too, were in the heyday of 8000 meter peak expeditions and tending to be much louder about their accomplishments.  And then of course I believe that ultimately the story was waiting for me.  Many people had considered writing it, but hadn’t for various reasons.  It seems clear to me now, and to readers, that it landed in my lap for just the right reasons. 

Question: How much did your first book, Awakening East, help you prepare for this one?

Johanna Garton: I was well-versed in the process of putting the pieces together once the manuscript was written.  I knew things would always take longer than I hoped.  But in terms of the actual writing, it was a completely different process, involves scores of people and a ton of research.  A process much more grounded in my journalist roots. 

Question:  What did you feel you needed to do to prepare to write Edge of the Map? What did you want to do differently, given that there are many books in this vein? 

Johanna Garton: Often times writers come to a project like this with a framework that they’re very attached to before they start talking to others or doing research.  I was quite the opposite.  I had a few threads I knew I wanted to cover, but I very much let the research and interviews drive where I decided to go.  My outline was written in pencil, not pen, shall we say!  And aside from weaving in more humanity as I mentioned above, it was also critical for me to write in a style that would feel accessible to people who love adventure stories, but NOT all the technical details that sometimes accompany these

books.

Question:  What are you working on next? 

Johanna Garton: I’m in the process of seeking my next story, and I hope it will be a similar work in terms of a female-driven outdoor adventure story.  I’m also actively working to see if I can have Edge of the Map made into a film or TV series, which would be a dream come true!

++

Johanna Garton’s website.

Watch the book trailer for Edge of the Map here.

++

REVIEW:

The first chapter is titled “Missing.” We have a pretty good idea where this is heading.

The opening scene in Edge of the Map involves finding a way inside two oversized—and locked—duffel bags. The duffels belong to Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler from Norwood, Colorado (just west of Telluride).

The search is being led by 32-year-old mountaineer named Ted Callahan. A CNN crew had tagged along with Callahan to cover the effort to find the missing climbers, but the trek to Litang, China led to the crew’s altitude sickness and their departure. Litang is at 12,000 feet. The dread is palpable.

We are given the quick backstories. Charlie is a “superstar” in the climbing community. “Among his greatest feats was walking away from a 1,500-foot fall during a winter climb in Tibet in 1997. The accident left him without several toes, lost to frostbite after he’d crawled for several days to the safety of the nearest road.”

And Christine Boskoff, at 39, “the only woman owner of a major climbing outfitter in the Pacific Northwest.” Not just any “major climbing company,” though. Specifically, the Seattle-based Mountain Madness that was smack in the middle of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest (covered by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air). For Chris, training might mean one-day sprints up and down Mount Rainier. “Chris was always laughing, constantly in motion, radiant and down-to-earth. She drew a crowd of admirers everywhere, though she barely noticed.” 

At the end of chapter one, Callahan uncovers the pair’s rough itinerary—to climb Mount Genyen, a holy mountain rising to 20,354 feet on the Tibetan Plateau.

So we know how this will end. Nobody goes missing for weeks at extreme elevation and survives.

But we gobble up the pages nonetheless. It’s not about the plot. Edge of the Map is one of this books—and this version is as fabulous as they come—that make us wonder if we can understand the allure of extreme mountaineering and why enthusiasts repeatedly put their lives at risk.

Johanna Garton’s focus is Boskoff. She’s likable, kind, and humble. And smart. A degree in electrical engineering. A job with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems guiding a team “designing software for a lighted control display for the C-130 Super Hercules, a military cargo plane.”

But a drop-in visit to talk about climbing in the Andes leads Christine down a whole new path and soon she is taking a crash course in mountaineering (in Colorado) and then it’s off to Bolivia. Less than a year after taking up the sport, she’s on the summit of 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.

Garton’s fast-paced narrative places Boskoff’s off-the-radar rise to the top of her sport in the context of all the changes that were happening with climbing—the commercialization of expeditions that led to the 1996 cluster and subsequent deadly traffic jam on Mount Everest. We see Boskoff manage relationships, personal tragedies, and the business of running a high-profile outfitting business. Often, Garton quotes directly from Boskoff’s letters and journals—notes that reveal Boskoff’s gentle spirit and kind view of the world.

But Boskoff was a monster—tireless, determined, and apparently light on her feet. She summited six 8,000-meter peaks. She is the only American woman with that many 8,000-meter peaks (and there are only 14 such peaks in the world). Clearly Boskoff was driven, in her own modest way, to prove that women could accomplish as much as men at extreme elevation. That theme makes for a fabulous undercurrent to Edge of the Map.

Garton recounts several expeditions where discretion and savvy meant turning back. Boskoff survives a major tragedy in her life—and carries on in positive fashion, picks herself up, and keeps doing what she loves to do. The last section of the book, after Christine and Charlie disappear, is a compelling sequence in its own right as Callahan & Co. follow the breadcrumbs to a high monastery.

Boskoff and Fowler tackled Mount Genyen off the radar. That is, they didn’t go through the normal hoops of securing a permit. The lack of a permit meant a longer search for their bodies, but it certainly would not have prevented the avalanche from falling.

Garton looks at the morality of climbing sacred mountains and the “sliding scale of individual logic.” Fowler, for one, believed the mountains to belong to everyone. It’s hard not to think that there are plenty of non-sacred peaks to conquer, but the avalanches don’t care one way or the other. 

And the question keeps resonating: why? And why do we read these books when we know the outcome? Because the people inside all that winter climbing gear are all different and all have their own reasons for heading up those peaks over and over again. Edge of the Map is a gripping read (and you might feel your fingers start to freeze as you turn the pages).

Final note: Edge of the Map is a book that was started by Garton’s mother. The Garton family and the Boskoff family had overlapping Wisconsin roots and Johanna’s mother became friends with Christine’s mother after Christine’s disappearance. But Parkinson’s Disease prohibited Johanna’s mother from finishing the book so Johanna, who had her own deep relationship with China and who had trekked the Annapurna Circuit in the 1990’s, picked up the project and completed the book. Despite the deep personal connections, Garton’s eloquent narrative stays in reporter/journalist mode throughout. Don’t miss the Author’s Note on this one!

Robert Macfarlane, “Underland”

Each sentence in Underland, Robert Macfarlane told The New York Times, was rewritten at least 20 times. And up to 40. Macfarlane said he needed to come up with a new language for a topic that is about “what we can’t see and don’t know.”

The underland, writes Macfarlane, “keeps its secrets well.”

Underland is Macfarlane’s effort to uncover them. The globe-trotting result is beautiful, enticing, immersive, palpable, rich. And, quite often, claustrophobic.

Macfarlane goes deep—both pondering the physical details (the nature of subterranean life) and all the resulting metaphors we live by. Height, for instance, Is celebrated. Depth is despised. The word “catastrophe” literally means a “downwards turn” and “cataclysm” a “downward violence.”

The underland “is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as to our memories, myths and metaphors,” he writes. “It is a terrain with which we daily reckon and by which we are daily shaped. Yet we are disinclined to recognize the underland’s presence in our lives, or to admit its disturbing forms to our imaginations.”

Macfarlane is not disinclined (there’s that high/low thing again). In fact, he’s inclined to go down. He is keenly interested in the effect that the current Anthropocene is having on the underland. In the case of the glaciers and Greenland and elsewhere, it’s not a pretty picture. Clearly one of the reasons for writing this book was to encourage those “lotus eaters” in denial to snap out of it. He wants “action not apathy.”

A “deep time awareness,” he argues, “might help us see ourselves as a part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.”

Macfarlane lets us sense every tight-squeeze space in three parts—Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe), and Haunting (The North). And off we go to the limestone Mendips mining country near Bristol. “Sean leads, lowering into a six-foot shaft. I follow, drop into darkness, and find him on his knees. There is just space for the two of us hunched together here. A head of us is the shoulder-wide entrance to the ruckle.”

And we are off to an underground lab more than a half-mile below the surface in Boulby, Yorkshire.  “The young scientist is trying to catch the faint breath of a particle wind sent blowing across space from a constellation called Cygnus, the Swan, many light years distant from Earth.”

Off to the Epping Forest in London and to the “invisible city” of the Paris catacombs.  “That one night, or perhaps it is one day, we listen to ‘Dig for Fire’ by the Pixies, laying a phone against the wall of a tunnel so the limestone booms the track back to us and lifts our spirits and makes me smile.”

To the Starless Rivers in Carso, Italy, to the Solvenian Highlands, and to Norway, Greenland, and Finland.

The writing is extraordinary.

“Snowfall like static when the wind drops, like warp-speed when it blows. Double-layer chain-link fencing. Three huge structures showing through the blizzard, across the bay, towards the inland’s tip. Great grey outlines emerging and fading: dome, tower, slabbed walls. The sea has melted clear around them; the sea should not have done so. Two trucks crunch past on ice tyres … The pirate radio plays ‘Disco Inferno’ by The Tramps.” Snow flurries in the headlights. I have to see a burial site and to bury something of my own. It will be dark when I reach the end of the world and it will be dark when I return to the surface.”

We’re off to a tomb, of sorts, on Olkiluoto Island off Finlnad—a tomb that is “intended to outlast not only the people who designed it, but also the species that designed it.”

It’s a tomb for high-level nuclear waste, “perhaps the darkest matter we have ever made.”

Macfarlane devotes the last chunk of this chapter to the issue of how those in charge of the dump will communicate to the future that what’s inside should be left alone. Macfarlane is focused on language—and what form of communication will get the warning message across.

“The challenges … were formidable. How to devise a warning system that could survive—both structurally and semantically—even catastrophic phases of planetary future. How to communicate with unknown beings-to-be across chasms of time to the effect that they must not intrude into these burial chambers, thus violating the waste’s quarantine?”

As Terry Tempest Williams put in her review for The New York Times (it’s pretty hard to top her take on this fabulous book), “Robert Macfarlane asks us not only to consider but to face the haunting and crucial question, ‘Are we being good ancestors?’”

The fact that we have to contemplate signage across the millennia—to whatever alien invaders end up running Earth or to whatever humanity looks like after an apocalypse or three—should make it clear that the question only has one obvious answer.

Fleur Bradley, “Midnight at the Barclay Hotel”

A review for the Four Corners Free Press.

Linda Keir, “The Three Mrs. Wrights”

Nobody wants to spend an evening in Buffalo alone. Well, nobody should. Lark doesn’t. She’s a board game designer, in town from her home in Los Angeles to pitch an idea. A guy named Trip at the hotel bar strikes up a conversation and soon she’s ordering another vodka and the next morning she can’t remember if they ended up in her room or his.

Jessica is the author of a life plan she’s been following since fifth grade. The grind of medical school and the endless hours of study have left one box unchecked—husband. And then along comes Jonathan Wright III, “offering a way to cross the last item off her list in an entirely different way than she’d imagined.” He recruited her for his “hush-hush” start-up, “a private equity moon shot developing an easy-to-swallow diagnostic tool to detect childhood cancers.” When we meet Jessica, she’s in Chicago for the first time to begin work and, she is sure, marry Jonathan.

Holly is the Barrington Hills Horse Lady and mother of three—Ava, Logan, and Paige. She is in the middle of a good old-fashioned neighborhood feud over the planned extension of a bridle path. She’s been married to Jack for 19 years. Holly wishes Jack spent less time on the road. She’s encouraged by the fact that he’s bringing some of his out-sourced work in house, meaning fewer trips to Phoenix. But he announces there’s a possible new partnership with a lab on the West Coast but Jack tells Holly he’s not sure how it’s going to work out. “We’re still in the courtship phase,” he says.  

Trip, Jon, and Jack—as we soon find out—are all one and the same (that’s no spoiler, given the title). Complications abound. They proliferate, lurk, and intermingle. They spawn.  The delicious and tantalizing premise of The Three Mrs. Wrights is watching three very different but smart and savvy women coming to grips with the ugly hot truth of the man who deceived them. 

Gimmick for a thriller? No. More like a human exploration of desire, needs, honesty, female careers in a patriarchy, female ambition in an age of inequality, our general predispositions to trust, social media, and the stories we tell about our own lives (the stories we want others to know and not know). If this is the age of the con, this novel is its mirror. The Three Mrs. Wrights is a page-turning beach read but chock full of meaty issues worthy of any book club.

Trip Jack Jon is a man on the move and part of the fun of The Three Mrs. Wrights is watching him ramp up fibs to regular old lies to whoppers. Of course he’s no more a straight shooter in the workplace so The Three Mrs. Wrights not only riffs off the “Dirty John” podcast (and television series), it also explores scandals like the recent Theranos implosion, where grandiose proclamations inevitably encountered the realities of investor expectations.

But the novel stays grounded because Linda Keir—the writing team of Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff—give Lark, Jessica, and Holly distinct three-dimensionality. Within a few cycles of the chapters churning—and 99 percent of the novel is told through their eyes, except for one brief glimpse through Mr. Wrong’s eyes at the end—you will quickly become familiar with each of their traits, wants, and issues.  It was a touch brilliant to give us one long-standing relationship (Holly), one on its way to marriage (Jessica) and one new blossom (Lark; a perfect name). The Three Mrs. Wrights is a triptych of hope, acceptance, and resignation.

The story zooms from Los Angeles to Cancun and Europe. Jessica and Holly have reason to meet, then Jessica and Lark. We know they’ll figure it out (of course they will) but the big questions are how they will treat each other, how they’ll catch the man who is duping them and, more importantly, how justice will be served. That’s the suspense. Trip Jon Jack is in a three-sided room and the walls are closing in. The story milks the final moment for all its worth and chooses the only location that makes sense. Hell hath no vehemence like three women scorned, but the climax stays within the book’s smart tone.

At one point Holly and Jessica are pondering the character and traits of the man who has hoodwinked them—as well as all the investors in the medical company that’s on thin ice. “He had a way of making true believers out of everyone,” says Holly.

The Three Mrs. Wrights might prompt a search in your world for those who have made true believers, in any aspect of your life, out of you. If not, it’s a juicy read all the same.

++

Previously reviewed: Drowning With Others

Previously reviewed: The Swing of Things

Includes Q & A with Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff

Jack Henry Abbott, “In the Belly of the Beast”

It’s impossible to read In the Belly of the Beast and not wonder how it would have been received had it been published now, in the year of the pandemic and civil rights upheavals and sharply divided political clashes over race, power, and wealth.

The New York Times Book Review called In the Belly of the Beast “fiercely visionary” when it came out, in 1981. Yes. And then some.

The backstory is legendary, but just in case—the book is based on letters Jack Henry Abbott wrote to Norman Mailer from prison. Abbott sent the first letters through Mailer’s literary agent, who forwarded them on to Mailer.

Abbott had spent most of his early childhood in foster homes, and landed in a school for delinquent boys at age 12. In 1963, after burglarizing a shoe store and stealing checks he made out to himself, he was sentenced to five years in a Utah penitentiary. In 1966, he fatally stabbed another inmate—and was given a concurrent sentence of three to 20 years. In 1971, he escaped from prison and robbed a savings and loan in Denver. He was convicted of armed robbery and faced a 19-year federal sentence.

He became an avid reader while locked up in Marion, Illinois, and started a correspondence with Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish-born novelist. By then, he had also sent a letter to Mailer, after noticing that Mailer was writing a book based on the life of the convicted murderer Gary Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song).

With the backing of Mailer and others, Abbott was released from prison early and his book, based on those letters, was published. Mailer had offered Abbott a job and publicly vouched for Abbott’s promise as a writer. Abbott, in fact, was briefly treated as a literary celebrity. Six weeks after being paroled, in 1981, Abbott killed a waiter in a New York City restaurant. (Apparently he was provoked by the lack of access to the employee-only indoor restroom.) He was found in Louisiana after a two-month manhunt. Mailer said he felt a “very large responsibility” for the murder.

Abbott was sentenced to 15 years to life for manslaughter and committed suicide, in prison, in 2002.

It’s also impossible to read In the Belly of the Beast and separate everything that happened after its publication. But it’s powerful. It’s a wake-up smack across the face. And it’s also a poignant plea. Abbott is insightful, self-aware, and highly analytical. It’s hard to imagine years of hard prison life inspiring passages of such lyrical beauty, but there they are:

“Memory is arrested in the hole. I think about each remembered thing, study it in detail, over and over I unite it with others, under headings for how I feel about it. Finally it changes and begins to tear itself free from facts and joins my imagination. Someone said being is memory.

It travels the terrain of time in a pure way, unfettered by what is, reckless of what was, what will become of it. Memory is not enriched by any further experience. It is deprived memory, memory deprived of every moment but the isolated body traveling thousands of miles in the confines of my prison cell.

“My body plays with my mind; my mind plays with my body; the further I go down into that terrain of time, into my memories, the more they enter my imagination. The imagination—bringing this memory into that, and that into this, every possible permutation and combination—requires further experience, which would, if not enhance it, at least leave it intact.”

Abbott works up plenty of anger, too. The New York Times’ Terence Des Pres called it a “cold fury.” Yep. Abbott, who spent a total of 14 years in solitary, deals out healthy doses of rage. He is a “state-raised” convict and is witness to all forms of oppression. Miserable, filthy, and inhuman conditions. He is forced to take drugs. He is subjected to routine beatings by guards. The guards have “arbitrary power” over prisoners. “That is the source of their evil.” Abbott claims the prison system desires horrible conditions so inmates will inevitably turn—“at each other’s throats”—and harm each other.  

Connecting with Abbott’s anger, in the year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and too many others, felt especially ripe.

“Tell America that as long as it permits the use of violence in its institutions—in the whole vast administrative system traditional to this country—men and women will always indulge in violence, will always yearn to achieve the cultural mantle of this society based on swindle and violence.

“When America can get angry because of the violence, done to my life and countless lives of men like me, then there will be end to violence, but not before.

“But whatever you say, tell America it is not (as Europe is fond of saying) a raging monster that was bred by the emigration of the worst blood of all the nations of the Old World. Tell America it is a cringing, back-stabbing coward because it cannot, has never tried to, exercise its will without violence. And because it is a coward, it does not respect reason. America resorts to the use of reason only as a final attempt to persuade, only after it has tried unsuccessfully to destroy a man, only after it is too late.”

Abbott recounts a story from an unnamed Texas town in 1962 when cops murdered a black farmer because he didn’t have money to pay a fine for a doing a poor job of parking his pickup. He was offered the alternative of being hauled to jail. Shouting “Leave me be,” the farmer was greeted with a hail of bullets fired into his chest. He was dead, says Abbott, before he hit the ground. “When I think of the profundity of the injustices done to black people in America, I feel a horror I cannot easily describe.”

On the streets and inside prison walls, the question remains—what are we tolerating? Why aren’t we angry about how we are treating all human beings? Isn’t separating a human being from society punishment alone—or are we rearing and raising more and more “state raised” convicts?

Published almost forty years ago, In the Belly of the Beast is as timely as ever.  

Donald Lopez Jr., “Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings”

Now I understand.

It’s the suffering.

“More than any other sport, baseball is suffused with suffering. The best batters fail to get a hit 70 percent of the time. The scoreboard in every stadium each day displays a giant E (for errors). Relief pitchers ae judged not by their wins but by their saves, the number of times they avert disaster. A team that loses four of every ten always goes to the playoffs; a team that loses five of every ten games never does. The season seems endless—162 games—many endured in ‘the dog days of August.’”

If only the 2020 season was 162 games and not the pandemic-shortened 60 games, I could suffer more.

Donald Lopez Jr. makes a case—and it’s a convincing one—that baseball is a Buddhist game. “Like Buddhism, baseball has its own elaborate universe, with good karma leading to rebirth as a god in the major leagues, an abode of private planes and luxury suites. Bad karma leads to rebirth in one of the trifling hells of the minor leagues, with names like ‘Low A,’ with smelly buses and cheap motels.”

Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings  is wry and insightful. (It’s also very funny.) The thesis, in case you’re wondering, is not a gimmick. Lopez means business. He is the Arthur E. Dink Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and he’s the author, editor, and translator of many books on Buddhism, including by the Dalai Lama.

Buddha Takes the Mound provides us baseball fanatics a quickie course in Buddhism—and a better grasp on the strange fixation with the peculiar sport and its deep layers of history, culture, codes, and unwritten rules.

Lopez analyzes baseball through the lens of various concepts fundamental to Buddhism—impermanence, suffering, no self, karma, and Vajrapani (“the bodhisattva of power”).

“In The Baseball Sutra, the Buddha reveals that the true meaning of the name ‘Vajrapani’ is not ‘he who holds the club,’ but rather ‘he who holds a bat.’ ‘Vajrapani’ means ‘batter.’ He reveals also that this bodhisattva appears in the human world as a great hitter. He further reveals that one of the human incarnations of Vajrapani was Ted Williams.”

To give Williams the Vajrapani mantle (ahem) is really saying something here because Lopez is a lifelong and ardent fan of the New York Yankees (a character flaw that cannot be overlooked). But Lopez deserves credit for recognizing this essential truth about the Red Sox legend. “His home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage all make it clear that he had tremendous power, as one would expect of the bodhisattva of power.” Lopez even gives Williams a pass for his grumpy public persona—and for killing animals; Williams was a legendary hunter, too.

As a true Yankee fan who seeks to display the depths of misery that are possible for the truly devoted, Lopez takes us all back to the World Series in 2001. Yankees vs. Diamondbacks. Game 7. Clemens vs. Schilling. Lopez is not afraid to revisit the pain and misery of it all (as a lifelong Red Sox, I wish he had stretched these pages out; maybe a full chapter). Yankees take a 2-to-1 lead into the ninth inning and the world falls apart.  A single. A bunt. An errant throw into center field by Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of all time. A poor decision by the Yankees third-baseman. A double down the right field line. A hit batter. A bloop. Diamondbacks win.

“How could this have happened?” asks Lopez, clearly still befuddled by the notion that the Yankees occasionally must also endure the cruel winds of baseball fate. “Fielders make errors, both errors of commission and omissions. Hitters get clutch hits. But for all manner of cosmic reasons, the Yankees seemed fated to the win the game, and to win the World Series. They had the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball on the mound, they had a future Hall of Famers at short, and they had a rock-solid MVP of the 1998 World Series and Gold Glove winner at third. During the 200 regular season, Rivera had seven wins and thirty-six saves. In seventy-five and two-thirds inning pitched, he had not committed a single error. And yet Rivera threw the ball into center. And yet Brosius held the ball. And yet the Yankees lost. There must be an explanation.”

Yes, Buddhism. Rebirth. Past Lives. Karma. The Buddha knows.

And a lesson for everyone outside baseball—about not dividing the world into friends, enemies, and “those to whom we are indifferent based merely on the experiences of this single short lifetime.”

Buddha Takes the Mound will have you yearning for more baseball. During this challenging year, we could all use a little more suffering … of the old-fashioned kind.

 

Q & A #84 – Art Taylor, “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74”

When I first read Art Taylor’s “English 398: Fiction Workshop” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I was blown away at the idea and the execution.

If you insist, I’ll dig up the tweet from the summer of 2018 to prove my immediate ‘wow’ reaction.

The story (the full title is “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More”) went on to win a slew of awards, including the Edgar Award for Best Short Story. Let me just say, those awards were deserved.

There’s a huge world of mystery short fiction, of course, but Art Taylor is clearly one of the best in the game. A quick check of all the shiny objects on his shelf will tell you all you need to know.

The decision to read Art’s new anthology, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74, was a no-brainer. The Four Corners Free Press this month published my review of the collection (click on the image to read the full review).  The collection includes one story set right here in the Four Corner region–“Rearview Mirror,” which begins in Taos.

Art was kind enough to answer some questions, in thoughtful detail, via e-mail. Very honored to have Art stop by the blog!

++

Question: First, thank you for doing this! Starting out with a general question.  Can you give us a little background on how long you’ve been writing short stories? When did you realize you had talent for short stories—specifically in the suspense / crime fiction realm? What was the intrigue of the form?

Art Taylor: I was first drawn toward short stories as a reader more than as a writer, though I imagine the two are inevitably linked. While some of the mysteries I loved as a child were novels—the Nancy Drew mysteries, The Three Investigators series—there were also the Encyclopedia Brown books and the five-minute mystery collections, all of those short stories ultimately. Sometime in late elementary school, early junior high, our school ran a fundraiser, with kids going door-to-door to sell magazines, and that was when I first subscribed myself for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—adult short stories then, and formative reading for sure. Add in Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever and more to that mix too—both in school and out. In part because of immersion in reading short fiction, both genre fiction and literary, I think my mind more naturally thinks in that form—the shapes of short stories, the tightness, the efficiency, the way a good one gestures toward a wider world. It’s amazing how much can be folded into such a small space, and I’m always trying to figure out ways to pack in more—that’s the ideal.

Question: In a few of the stories in The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74, you don’t merely reference the classics, you embrace them—Caroline and Edward reading a copy of Murder on the Orient Express in a story called “Murder on the Orient Express” and Philip in “An Internal Complaint” copying Chekhov “as an exercise,” and Cooper Hobbes in the title story wanting to be “Encyclopedia Brown.” In a way, this could be taken as saying that there is really nothing new in crime fiction, short stories or otherwise. And in another way, the references give us a solid anchor to the story. Similarly, “Ithaca 37” references classic movies, from The Godfather to Taxi Driver and others. It’s a pretty nifty technique.  Was it daunting to name a short story after an Agatha Christie classic? Is it daunting to reference Chekhov and nonetheless plunge ahead with a story? Why does this work so well, do you think?

Art Taylor: Here too I think that reading (and watching!) helped lead to writing in many ways. Often, other people’s storytelling—stories or books or films—prompt my own imagination into gear.  My story “The Odds Are Against Us” was, in fact, directly inspired by a David Goodis story, and then, after writing it, I also realized I’d unconsciously folded in a little bit of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, my favorite of his novels. And I mentioned earlier my own love of Encyclopedia Brown, so there’s a layer of autobiographical content in the title story of The Boy Detective too—and some additional layering, I guess: me reading Encyclopedia Brown, being inspired to write my own stories, then writing about a character reading Encyclopedia Brown, and him being inspired to become a detective and…

There and elsewhere, I’ve recognized the way I’m influenced by what I read and watch, and I’ve passed that along to my character too: people who see the world through the lens of the books and movies they’ve consumed.

Honestly, it wasn’t entirely intentional. Apparently, it’s just the way I see the world.

As for being daunted by conjuring up classic writers and classic texts… “An Internal Complaint” takes off on Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog”—one of the most famous short stories of all time—and while I wouldn’t even joke about my work being in the same company as Chekhov—yikes!—I do hope that I’ve learned something from reading his stories and hope I’ve begun to apply some of what I’ve learned. It’s not meant as overconfidence or overambition in those cases, but more like nods of appreciation.

Question: Since I live out here a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, can you tell us what led you to place Rearview Mirror in the west? What is it about the wide-open landscape and thieves-on-the-run that makes such a compelling combination? There’s a great fit here between setting and story. And how did “Rearview Mirror” grow from one story into a series that became a novel-in-stories format? What was it about Del and Louise that made you think there was more to discover?

Art Taylor

Art Taylor: Oh, yes, there’s a story behind the story there—one particularly related to setting in several ways. The backstory is a little extensive, but I hope you might enjoy.

My wife and I took a fall trip to New Mexico many years ago—a week-long trip, our first visit to the Southwest: Albuquerque to Taos to Sante Fe and back. A great trip, one of our favorites. Several months later, the Washington Post announced its annual fiction contest—write a short story based on a specific photograph, and that year the photo was an overhead shot of a woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, kicked back, her legs up, and a desert scene in the background. My wife—Tara Laskowski, also a writer—said that each of us should enter the contest, and given that desert scene in the background, I ended up drawing on a lot of details from the trip we’d just taken.

Once I’d overlaid the idea of a getaway over the route my wife and I took, bringing in bits and pieces or our own adventures, and once I’d heard the voice of Louise, the narrator, in my head, talking about how she and her boyfriend Del were putting their life of crime behind them… well, I felt like I was following Louise as she traveled some of the same routes we had.

I ultimately blew past the maximum word-count for the contest, so I never submitted my story to the Post. It ultimately appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

But then there’s more to settings.

The ending of the “Rearview Mirror” opens up toward another beginning in some ways—a real estate job ahead in Victorville, California, a town I’d just picked randomly from the map; I didn’t think too much about it, because I never planned on following these characters anywhere further. It was only years later that I began to wonder what had happened next to Del and Louise, and I began to tinker around with a second adventure—which I decided to move to Napa Valley, because that was another trip I’d taken with my own wife. But then I actually started reading about Victorville and learned how it had been kind of a model for everything that went wrong when the housing market bubble burst and… and in the first story, I’d unknowingly sent my characters toward a real estate job there? In a manuscript I wrote before that bubble burst?

Serendipity—from a writing standpoint at least. I started fresh on that second story, relocated back to Victorville now… but then I still had all the leftover adventures from the Napa Valley story I’d been writing too, so a third story was loosely sketched out.

Ultimately, those stories were joined by three more—in Las Vegas, in South Dakota, and back in North Carolina (Louise’s home state and mine too)—to form my first book, the novel On the Road with Del & Louise. These individual adventures added into a longer road trip of a story, following both their physical journey across the U.S. and also their emotional journey, figuring out what those two title characters mean to one another, where they’re going in a bigger sense.

(And for me, writing a book this way helped me work within my comfort level and hopefully toward my strengths—using individual short stories as building blocks toward a bigger story.)

Question: Back to “Ithaca 37”— about a guy who pays a bit too much attention to movies about people who take the law into their own hands. There’s a low-grade creep factor to this story because we don’t know whether our narrator can tell the difference between stories and real life, even if we want to like him because he likes the same movies we do. Yikes. It’s a great technique. We know from the get-go that he takes his movies much too seriously. I’d love to know how this idea came about—especially the voice for the story itself.

Art Taylor: I often begin stories with the idea of an experiment or a challenge—and in this case the challenge involved an unreliable narrator: Can I tell a story where the narrator sees one thing and the reader sees another? More than seeing really: a story where the narrator says one thing and the reader understands another, with some levels of uneasiness and pity and pathos in the mix—that was the goal.

The idea came from a movie night and a Facebook post. On August 24, 2009 (I just looked it up to verify!) my wife and I watched Get Carter, the Michael Caine version (not the Stallone remake)—named by critics as the best British film of all time. I posted about the movie on Facebook, including a photo of Caine, and a friend of mine commented “Ithaca 37”—the kind of gun Caine’s character Carter carries in the photo. (I have friends who know these things.) The next day on FB, I made a second post: that the film and my friend’s comment had given me the idea for a new story—and I thank Adam Firestone again for that.

I love crime movies myself, and it was fun to use some favorites as the structure of a story where someone lives his life according to the lessons he’s taken from films like that—or the lessons he’s mistaken, that would be more the case.

Question: “English 398: Fiction Workshop” is one of those stories that leaps off the page as highly original. What was the moment of inspiration for this beauty? I’d love to think it came to you while you were teaching a class in writing. I have a hunch it might be one of those stories that almost wrote itself, but … maybe not? Did it take revision (as the story instructs its own author to do)?

Art Taylor: “English 398: Fiction Workshop” was another experimental story—more structurally experimental initially, in this case, rather than in terms of perspective and narration. And the inspiration was directly from the classroom. In fact, English 398 is the actual course number for the fiction workshop I teach at George Mason University.

The goal here was initially to tell a story by following the kinds of writing advice you’d get in a fiction workshop—explicitly having that advice interrupt the story in progress and shift either the prose or the plot as it’s unfolding.

It ultimately also became a different challenge—layering different storytellers against one another and folding in different voices (six ultimately, if I’m counting correctly) to narrate or comment on or even complain about the story.

The revision of all that was key, of course—following the writing advice itself, fine-tuning the sections and the voices, and then trimming it back to leave room for the reader to project their interpretation onto the story. The final section, told from the perspective of a writer for the student newspaper, also required a fair amount of work, trying to get that young woman to sound right, slang and swagger and all.

Question: Looking back on your early stories to what you’re writing now, has there been a change in your writing style? Your approach to the form?

Art Taylor: Stylistically, I’m not sure. I sometimes set out to try different things stylistically—as with the voice of that final narrator in “English 398”—and yet other people have said that my stories have a certain feel or style that stands out as mine. So maybe… not?

Formally, I do tend to veer from more traditional storytelling to more experimental—back and forth, almost one story to the next—and overall, I feel like I’ve gained more understanding of potential structures and approaches, more confidence about how stories might work. Hopefully there’s been growth.

Question: Does it get easier and easier to find ideas for short stories? Or harder and harder? When an idea comes to you, do you know early on whether you’ll be going first-person or third?

Art Taylor: Ha! Despite that last thing I said—greater understanding, more confidence—the truth is writing always seems hard: every story starts with a blank page, every one feels like I’m figuring it all out again. I just hope I’m bringing better perspectives to it. And I’m a super slow writer, so… while finding ideas might be easy, the writing itself usually feels hard.

Question: You’re editing the next short story anthology for Bouchercon, California Schemin.’ (Obviously, too bad there will be no actual conference to celebrate its publication.) But it’s not your first time taking on this role. Can you give us an idea how hard it is to winnow down the submissions? How much work goes into these collections? Given your teaching and writing schedule, what’s in it for you to take on these projects? What do you learn from reading others?

Art Taylor: The couple of times I’ve edited anthologies, I’ve tried to schedule a lot of the reading and editing around some gaps in my teaching schedule—but I still don’t always manage my time well. Solid deadlines help motivate.

I read 44 stories for the new anthology and selected 13 for publication, in addition to the stories contributed by the conference guests of honor: Cara Black, Anthony Horowitz, Catriona McPherson, Walter Mosley, Anne Perry, and Scott Turow. (More than 150 stories were submitted in total, and an initial panel of judges narrowed those down to the 44 I read—reading all of them blind, without my knowing who wrote them.)

So many of the stories I read were terrifc, and so many could’ve made the final cut. In addition to quality, I was looking for a good mix overall in many directions: traditional mystery, hard-boiled mystery, domestic suspense, noir, etc.; some humor here, something more serious there; diversity of characters too, of course. I was keeping one eye on the qualities of an individual story and another on the emerging feel of the anthology overall.

I’ve loved editing both these anthologies—and hope that the reception for California Schemin’ this fall will be as strong as it was for Murder Under the Oaks five years ago.

Question: Final question—the tried and true question: who are your favorite short story writers and who is one writer out there who might be a bit under the radar but who you think could use a bit more attention?

Art Taylor: I always come back to Stanley Ellin as a favorite. Back in 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon, Janet Hutchings, editor at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, mentioned that my writing reminded her of Ellin’s (I can now think of no higher compliment), and I went back and read all of the stories he published in EQMM. He set the bar for any short story writer to aspire toward: meticulous and elegant prose, clockwork-precise plotting, thematic depth, and some daring too—just look at “House Party” or “The Moment of Decision” to see what I mean.

I started out this interview talking about Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the writers there who influenced me—Ellin, Mignon Eberhart, Ed Hoch, Hugh Pentecost… These are the names that stand out in memory as ones I followed. But I also read Flannery O’Connor in school and Eudora Welty and Hemingway and… that list could go on.

As for contemporary writers I admire, there are many I could name here, but I hesitate to start for fear I’d leave out a friend I should mention. As for newer writers, stories newer to me, I want to give a special shout-out to Hector Acosta’s “Turistas”—a stunner of a tale from Angel Luis Colón’s collection ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas! …though with Acosta’s story having been named a finalist for this year’s Edgar, Anthony, and Thriller Awards, I don’t know that he’ll be under anyone’s radar anymore.

I’m looking forward to reading more of his work and to seeing where his career goes next.

++

More information about Art at his website here.