Independence Day and writing fiction.
Some connections on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog.
Paul Revere was the third of 12 children. Why him?
Independence Day and writing fiction.
Some connections on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog.
Paul Revere was the third of 12 children. Why him?
Brad Newsham is a writer, a thinker, a traveler, a seeker, a cab-driver, a protester, a reader, and a fan of San Francisco like few others. He’s also a helluva nice guy. I knew Brad a little bit in college–he was a couple of years ahead of me. I was blown away by his first book about his travels, All The Right Places, but never got around to his second, Take Me With You (both from big New York publishers and both drew considerable national attention and high praise).
Newsham has traveled the world. He has worked as dishwasher, school bus driver, construction worker, waiter, underground miner, and small town newspaper reporter. He once drove a touring concert harpist around the country. He built a log house, with two buddies, in Idaho. Experiences? He’s had a few.
Brad and I have reconnected lately because he’s been a big supporter of the works of the late Gary Reilly–both the eight funny novels about cab driving (The Asphalt Warrior series) and the three gripping novels about Gary’s experiences before, during and after The Vietnam War.
Earlier this year Brad sent me a copy of his latest, Free Ride. At first I was daunted a bit by the book’s sheer heft (more than 400 pages). And I was a bit skeptical about how this was going to work–a whole book about a cab driver who gives away one ride for free during each and every shift?
Sure, cab drivers are colorful and Brad’s a great writer, but … ?
When I was done, I wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again.
Free Ride is a piece of work. A full review follows the Q & A with Brad, below.
Somehow, some way, Free Ride deserves national distribution and a spotlight on it that’s stronger than all the searchlights at San Quentin put together.
Question: You said in a recent beach message event that you are back behind the wheel of a taxi. You said the taxi world has changed considerably in just a few short years, due to the boom of “ride-sharing” services. What’s it like out there on the streets now? Are you still giving away a free ride every day? Can you still make money and/or is it harder to give away free rides? How much do licensed cab drivers dislike those who drive for Uber and Lyft?
Brad Newsham: I haven’t driven a shift for money since I sold my cab in 2013. An offer I couldn’t refuse. No intelligence required on my part, sheer blind luck. And now, four and a half years later, Uber and Lyft have so destroyed the cab business that during the last two years I haven’t heard of a single San Francisco cab owner being able to sell his or her cab. No buyers. And that wasn’t something that I could foresee in 2013, wasn’t something that most of us could have foreseen, really. Back then the cab industry seemed eternal, indestructible. Everyone knew that even after Armageddon had come and gone, after society had collapsed, there would still be cockroaches in the kitchen and cab drivers out prowling the streets. Now we have no idea what’s coming. At least not to the cab industry.
I have missed cab driving, I have missed talking to strangers, and last year Green Cab very graciously told me that any time I wanted to, if they had a cab that wasn’t being used by a paying driver, I could come in and take it out—for free—and drive it around San Francisco and give away free rides to my heart’s content. And I went out and did just that four or five times. But the last time I did that was about three months ago, and it was depressing. I spent three hours cruising twenty-some miles around God’s Favorite City and not a single person flagged me. The radio was almost dead, one order every fifteen minutes or so, and all of them went to drivers who were better positioned than I was. I also pulled into about ten bus stops and offered people free rides, but every one of them seemed to regard me with suspicion. “A cab driver! An outcast! A felon probably! Shun him! Look away! A free ride—hah! What kind of idiot does he think I am?” That was no fun at all, and I haven’t gone back. My cab driver friends all say that their income is down 30%-70%. Talk about stress!
But I am not an Uber or Lyft hater. I have never ridden with any of them—it would be too embarrassing to have one of my old cab driving colleagues see me—but it is undeniable that they have made life infinitely easier for the person hoping to get from Point A to Point B. The public loves them. Still, it’s also undeniable that these new guys cheated. There were rules that I and so many other people played by for decades, rules that the public had decided were needed, and even though we chafed at them, we obeyed them, and then Uber and Lyft came along and said, “Fuck you. You suck but we’re special, we’re different, there are no rules that we have to abide by.” They stole retirement plans from lots of people my age and older who had followed and still do follow all the rules. I got lucky, but I think you can understand how Uber and Lyft are detested by many cab drivers.
Question: What’re your predictions? Will cabs always have a role or will everyone make the shift to ride services?
Brad Newsham: About ten years ago I was driving from SFO back into the city and as I was going around “hospital curve” I overtook a prototype driverless vehicle. I slowed down and pulled in behind and followed it for a while. And after about ten seconds I thought, “Well, there goes THIS job!” It was going precisely the speed limit without wavering. It was staying precisely between the lane lines. It was never going to get sleepy, was never going to get robbed, never going to drive drunk, never going to text, was never going to need health insurance or a vacation or workers comp or unemployment. Whenever they get all the bugs worked out of that system, driverless cars are going to be safer and cheaper than any human driver, I think.
Here are my predictions. Driving people around for hire, which has for decades been everyone’s profession of last resort—“If my life ever really does go to hell, I can always drive a cab…”—well, that’s all going away. For a few years the cab industry will bitch and moan while it dies a prolonged and painful death, and then the Ubers and Lyfts of the world will fight each other for a while, and then before too long everyone will be out of jobs. And this won’t just happen in the cab industry—although I’ve always thought that society’s trends showed up first in the cab world, and then went on to the broader society—this is gonna happen all over the place. And when it does happen we’ll simply have to demand that the corporations that govern us will have to provide everyone with guaranteed incomes and universal health care and we’ll fund all this by ending war and recommissioning our armies as agencies for delivering food and education and health care and infrastructure. And after that we’ll all live happily ever after for ever and ever. There’re my predictions. Maybe we should start demanding those things now?
Question: I have to ask about the writing and organization and editing of Free Ride. It’s a self-published book with very few (relatively) copies being printed yet you poured so much care into the production. I didn’t spot one typo in all 419 pages. And you interspersed stories about your youth and post-college days so seamlessly with your taxi-driving journal. First, how did you organize the book? And can you describe your editing and proofing process? Folks who self-publish and care about such things want to know.
Brad Newsham: After the relative success of Take Me With You, I tried to find a publisher willing to offer me a contract to write a third book. I’d written my first two books on spec, and they’d both eventually wound up being published by Random House, and I thought—naively—that I might, maybe, please, be considered a slightly-proven commodity. Hey, I’d been on national TV and radio, even All Things Considered by god, seven or eight whole minutes—me!—and I was even kind of hot in the UK for a little while—but the publishing industry found all of that totally unremarkable. The ONLY thing they wanted to know was, “How many copies did your first two books sell?” My agent flogged a couple of book proposals to all the big and most of the nearly-big publishers, and the answer was always the same: “Nope, sorry—we need blockbusters, and we don’t think your guy is blockbuster material.” I’m sixty-five now, but I was turning fifty right about then. I’d been writing since I was a teenager, and I had never made any money from writing. And when I say “no money,” you, another writer, you know exactly what I mean: “No Money!” It cost me more to create those two books than I received back from them. And at the age of fifty, I was unwilling to continue writing without a guarantee of publication. So I quit. Hopped off that merry-go-round.
But you also know that a writer doesn’t just stop writing. And starting in about 2002 or 2003 I wrote for myself, wrote for fun, stopped looking for the fame and fortune one believes in when one is younger. And eventually—in the year two thousand and frigging sixteen!—it turned into Free Ride. I wrote exactly the book I wanted to write, and it was also a book that I thought I myself would find irresistible if I heard about it or if I saw it laying on someone’s coffee table or in their bathroom or something. And there was no way I was going to turn my precious little baby over to the publishing industry for them to laugh at or scoff at or brush off. Sorry—I’d put too much care into it for that. No typos—thank you for noticing! Although I imagine there are probably one or two still lurking. If anyone finds one, I have a $5 bounty per typo.
My processes? I started Free Ride as an online journal—I hate that pathetic little word b-l-o-g—don’t get me started on b-l-o-g. Told myself I was just going to have as much fun as I could for one year, and I kept that journal, chronicling the daily free ride I always gave away in my cab. I kept that journal from the beginning of 2010 until the end. And at the end of the year I read it all the way through, wondering, of course, wondering if I’d written a book “by accident.” Nope. But in the summer/fall of 2011, I read it again—it had kept nagging at me. And I decided that if it was going to keep nagging at me, I should keep working it until I was as happy with it as I could get it. That required four full drafts over a period of a couple of years, and it still wasn’t a book—it was still very b-l-o-g-g-y—and I realized that what it needed, what would make it attractive to me, was to have a memoir of my life woven through it. It needed to be more personal. And finally, in 2016, after Draft Eleven, I was as happy as I could be with it. Still am. I love it. I’m having the greatest time with it. Having my first two books published by Random House was a great thing—really, a ton of fun for me—but just last week, a year after copies of Free Ride first landed on my doorstep, I realized that I was much more content and satisfied with the process of this book than I had been after a year with either of my first two books. A year after I’d published my first book, I was as discouraged and low as I’ve ever been in my life. I’d climbed the mountain and found that there was…nothing at the top! Now I’m just climbing. I appreciate every single reader. There have been 141 so far and another 100 or so are currently reading it. I feel like I’m having an experience that no author dead or alive has ever had. I’ve printed 250 copies so far—it’s the most I can afford to print—it costs me about $20 to put a copy into a reader’s hands—and I know where every single copy is and who has read or is currently reading it. Or rather, I know where they all disappeared to, the last place they were sighted. Any writer who wants to know more about my process, my email is my last name at mac-dot-com.
Question: Does driving a taxi help you contemplate “ego-created illusions?” And how is it going with Eckhart Tolle this days—are you still re-reading?
Brad Newsham: Ha! I have recently completed my 42nd reading of Eckhart’s The Power of Now and also my 24th reading of his other masterpiece A New Earth. I’ve read a few pages of one or the other of those two books almost every day since I came across Power of Now at a yard sale in September 2003 and bought it for a dollar. It—the awareness of this “ego-created illusion” that you and Tolle refer to—has altered my life. It has become a familiar, daily, sometimes moment-to-moment voice in my head: “Breathe. Notice this breath. This inhale. This exhale. Notice your entire body. Breathe. This inhale. This exhale.” Just last week I was thinking about all the voices I’ve listened to in my life. Growing up in Christian Science I listened intently to Mary Baker Eddy for twenty years; the Bible, too, of course, and I particularly loved Bible stories. My mother was another strong strong voice. My dad was more of just a presence, a quieter, almost brooding presence, and it took me decades to realize that he had a lot to brood over, especially the death of his first wife, in his arms, a tubal pregnancy gone all wrong, a situation that did not yield to Christian Science treatment. When I went out on my own, the voice of marijuana was a strong and for a long, long time a very good voice in my life; some psychedelics too for a while, although it’s been 33 years now. And starting some time in my late twenties and lasting on up until, well, this moment, I suppose, there was the incredible voice of Werner Erhard, preaching responsibility, and constantly insisting that we consider the possibility that each of us is in fact creating our own reality. Collectively, as humans, and also individually as humans, too. But for the past fourteen years Eckhart Tolle’s been my main man. My thinking last week was that each of those voices was a strong and valid voice and had a lasting influence on me, and it is only now, at age sixty-five, that I find myself thinking that I may have—I’m not positive about this, but I just may have—found my own voice. Including, maybe, my own writing voice. I’m still sorting all of this out
Question: Does driving a taxi scratch the same itch as backpacking around the world?
Brad Newsham: Oh, I’m loving your questions, Mark. It’s always fun to be interviewed, and it’s been a long time now. And in the thirty or so years since anyone first interviewed me, I don’t remember anyone else asking this question. But if you drive around San Francisco for ten hours, and do that for a couple of years, you’ll find it impossible to not notice the similarities between cab driving and backpacking. World-class scenery. Strings of short interactions with interesting strangers. Foreign languages being spoken all around you—at least once a day I found myself speaking Spanish to someone. Also, the freedom. There is no boss—you make all the decisions yourself. “Let’s see—here I am in Hong Kong. Should I try to find a great beach in the Philippines or should I go see what China’s like?” That was an actual choice I grappled with in 1984. In my cab, it’s the same, just different. At least a hundred times each shift you think, “Gee, should I turn right, turn left, keep going forward, pull a U-turn? Somewhere within 90 seconds of me is a nice fat airport fare who’s looking for me, but where? Should I hang out at a hotel or in front of an office building or should I play the radio?” When cab driving was going well I would come home positively giddy: “I can’t believe I get paid for driving around God’s Favorite City and chatting up strangers.”
Question: The whole “free ride” thing—what would the world be like if everyone donated one part of their day, or one part of their week (somehow), as a random gift? Can we start a campaign? Get people to take a pledge? A cab driver is in a great position to be able to make the ‘free’ gesture but, well, you must have given some thought to applying this concept more broadly so, what do you think? Restaurants could do this. Lawyers. Doctors. Plumbers. Have any other cab drivers taken up the habit?
Brad Newsham: When I was a kid my family used to go to a bowling alley with a “red pin special.” They had one red pin in the rotation on each lane, and if the red pin ever came up front and center you were supposed to go over and tell the manager, and if you rolled a strike while the manager was looking you won a free game. I absolutely loved that. Way back then even, I thought, “Why doesn’t everyone do something like this?” It was fun! And don’t we all want to have more fun? And yes, we can probably all look around and see ways we could make our specific lives more fun, but I’m not sure we want to make it a rule or anything. I think people can figure something out on their own, if they want. But I love nothing more than hearing from other drivers who’ve heard about my free rides and who then gave one away because they wanted to try it. They’re always thrilled by it. Just last night I ran into a guy that finished reading Free Ride a few weeks ago, and he said that ever since he read it he’s given money to every beggar that has asked for some, because he’d read about me doing that. How cool is that!
Question: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” That’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote you cited on page 237 at a point long before a certain orange-haired narcissist was given the keys to the White House. What’s the buzz in San Francisco? Were you encouraged by the turnout for “RESIST!!” in February?
Brad Newsham: Five thousand people! Yes, I was encouraged. Beyond encouraged. It was a lifetime event, without a doubt. The biggest crowd I’d ever attracted before was about 1,500, and to see 5,000 pouring onto the beach—oh, my! I’ve been doing these events for ten years, and I’ve always fantasized about a truly huge turnout, and it came off just like my fantasies. More like a hallucination. I suppose you’ve heard the followup? The threat of gun violence? That was actually more like a hallucination. After the RESIST event—that happened on February 11—I scheduled another event for April 15 and began planning for it, and then I received a threat of gun violence, through Facebook. I took it to the FBI, who said, “You absolutely did the right thing bringing this to us—we have to treat this as a credible threat.” It took them six weeks to get back to me and tell me that they had investigated it and found it to be not credible. It’s too long a story to tell here, and it’s too sad a story to tell here, but the bottom line is that that threat derailed the April 15 event, and I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. I’m over the shock portion, but still feeling uncertain about how to proceed, but I do think that somewhere down the road there’ll be another. They’re too much fun to simply let some idiot sabotage. But the truth is that it scared the shit out of me. I personally know hundreds of people who have attended those events. Many of them are 15-20 years old, and I have known either them or their parents for many, many years. The last thing I want to do is to have anyone who comes out to have a fun time at a cool event with, geez, a helicopter and postcards and everything, wind up dead or something. Oh god. What a world we’ve got. How did we get here?
Question: “I often wonder if I could have survived cards dealt from the bottom of Life’s deck.” That’s a Brad Newsham quote from page 321. Is cab driving a daily reminder about empathy? About the relative nature of your own problems? Should schools teach courses in empathy?
Brad Newsham: One of my favorite Gary Reilly quotes is from Asphalt Warrior, which I recently reread: “I still think school is a hoax.” I completely missed the point of school until, really, just about the time I was done with college. All the way along, I thought school should have and could have been a lot more fun. Especially if we’d spent more time dealing with real stuff—yes, empathy, for instance. Many of us were terrorized by our school experiences. But, hah. It sounds like I’m complaining. I’ve had this privileged life, and here I am complaining. I’m human. Cab driving was indeed a daily ten-hour lesson in humanity, and I was fortunate that I was paid to do that for so many years. There are billions of people on this planet right this minute who, if they heard my life described, might happily trade places with me. It’s hard for me to not forget that.
Question: If people want a copy of Free Ride – how can they get one?
Brad Newsham: My email address is my last name-at-mac-dot-com. Email me and we can talk about it. Right now all I’ve got is loaner copies, and right this minute I am totally out of them. But email me and we’ll see what happens.
Question: What’s next for you?
Brad Newsham: I don’t have a definite plan. But a year to the day after 9/11, on September 11, 2012, I inaugurated a project I absolutely loved. I called it Backpack Nation. It involved sending out individual ambassadors from our country to travel the world with a message of hope and peace from the people of the USA. It got a lot of people excited, including me, most of all. But projects are tricky to steer, and they are all too easy to derail, and in the end I managed to keep that one going for three years. I’m proud of what we accomplished. And I have this fantasy that after Free Ride has been read by 1,000 readers, I may go about reviving Backpack Nation. Everything starts with a fantasy.
Brad Newsham’s website.
I have a salve for what ails you and a possible new way of looking at the world.
It’s a book called Free Ride by Brad Newsham.
You can’t read it, however—yet. That’s because Brad Newsham only printed 250 copies of this beauty.
Yes, beauty. It’s a self-published treasure. Free Ride is 419 pages and it’s chock full of beautiful photographs and 150,000-plus words of elegantly crafted prose. Ideas, insights, colorful characters and Brad’s unique perspective bloom on every page.
No surprise—Brad has given away all 250 copies.
I got one.
You can’t read it (not yet; there’s hope) but I am at liberty to tell you all about it and to share its essence. (See Q & A above for information about how to nudge Brad into printing more copies.)
Free Ride, given the biting rancor of our national conversation (if you could call it that) and all the nasty crap on social media, will encourage you to go about your life a bit differently.
It will also let you spend time with a good guy doing good things every day and thinking deep and interesting thoughts about his life and his upbringing and everything else in-between.
Newsham is the author of heart-warming travel books All The Right Places and Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey To Invite A Stranger Home and Free Ride, in which our cab-driving narrator donates one ride for free to unsuspecting passengers each and every shift, is a perfect book-end to this trilogy. The difference in Free Ride is that the world comes to Newsham, in the back of his cab.
The daily donations to the world’s karma scale began in 1985 when Brad began driving a cab and quickly realized that the worst parts of his shifts were waiting for the next fare. It was during the alone time that he questioned his life choices and his worth as a person. So Brad started swooping into bus stop waiting zones and offering people a free ride. He soon realized how good it made him feel to be helping someone, rather than driving around empty.
“From that first seed, things evolved organically, and for approximately two decades now I have consciously given away at last one ride per shift. (I have come to regard each as a living entity, a unique member of a species of my own invention: Free Ride.) I don’t tally them, but I’m sure their number well exceeds one thousand. It probably exceeds two thousand. Three thousand? Maybe, maybe not.”
And each year he gives away a whole day’s worth of free rides—Newsham’s favorite day of the year.
Thus Free Ride is one year in the life of Brad Newsham. Free Ride is 94 entries that detail a wide variety of experiences and interactions with Brad’s fares, intermixed with tales of Brad’s youth, upbringing, parents, and post-college life.
The fares, as one might imagine, are colorful. The iron worker who is a would-be fashion designer. A woman on her way to painting class. A stripper. A recruiter for Blackwater. An Oracle employee from Kenya headed from SFO to the Hilton Towers. A software engineer from New Delhi on his first visit to the United States. A professional baseball player.
On and on.
There’s nothing routine or repetitive about reading Free Ride. Every trip brings a new wrinkle, a fresh perspective, or triggers an insight from Newsham, who never pretends to have all the answers. Quite the opposite. Newsham is a fan of Eckhardt Tolle (The Power of Now), Werner Erhard, and was raised as a Christian Scientist. (Brad and I knew each other, from a distance, at Principia College where he was a long-haired, easy-going star on the college basketball team. He was a couple of years ahead of me.) Anyway, Newsham’s approach isn’t to explain the quirky universe, only inhale it with each stroke of the pen.
Free Ride is a meaty, hefty, meaningful book that deserves to be widely read. It’s a manual for positive thinking, a primer on empathy, and a master class in how to be a citizen of the world. The colorful photographs are an added bonus and the care for the prose and editing sets an impeccable standard for any writer contemplating the self-publishing route. (I spotted nary a typo and Newsham is paying a $5 bounty for anyone who does; 419 pages!)
The writing is frequently spectacular but never over-wrought. Substance over flash. Detail over show-off. Newsham has one of those easy-going writing styles that goes down like a cool drink of water.
“In the five a.m. darkness a full moon hangs over the city like a shiny hubcap nailed halfway up the side of a garage wall. But by 8:30 the moon has already become a distant memory, replaced by a ragged sky full of high cauliflower clouds, warm wind gusts, and occasional sprinkles. I have just dropped a fare at St. Mary’s Hospital, on the edge of Golden Gate Park, when one block away, on the unlikely corner of Hayes and Shrader, I am flagged by a middle-age white guy with a ghostly countenance. Strands of brown hair spill from under his “US Marine Corps” baseball cap and hang like window curtains down the side of his face.”
“Finally I catch a thirty-nine-dollar airport off the radio and then, back in the City, another radio call on the edge of the Castro. Her name is Whitefeather, and I remember that when she rode in my cab several years ago, we discovered that we were both from the same tribe, the Olehippies.”
And both original and vulnerable:
“One-Word-Answers pays me, turns away without speaking, opens the door and steps out toward the gay man. As she raises herself up off my backseat, I notice that her bottom-side is trim and smooth and exquisitely curved, and is sheathed in a sleek skirt/shorts thing—fire-engine red. A meticulous sculptor has shaped her legs. The long leather thongs of a pair of Old Testament sandals are lashed tightly all the way up her perfectly tanned calves. The gay man is directly in her path. He looks her up and down and up and down again. When he trills ‘Well, hell-oh, dar-lin’ I have to fight the impulse to jump out and hug him, maybe even French kiss him. Little Miss Smoking Hot? I hear an irritated whoosh of air escape her: “Ooooff!” Or maybe it’s just the hydraulic brakes on a nearby bus.”
I wish I could insert the entire Kerouac-esque tribute / pastiche chapter alone; it’s masterful. One sentence from this one long (five-page) paragraph: “It’s clear like a San Quentin searchlight pointing right in my eyes every thought I’ve ever thought has already been thought by at least a billion people every place I’ve ever been has already been trampled over by at least a billion billion more and then written about by at least half a billion billion of them. Every hope and dream I’ve ever hoped and dreamed has been endlessly hoped and endlessly dreamed and every ache and pain I’ve ever ached and pained has already been ached and pained by a zillion others. How did I ever delude myself that it was possible I might ever do something original? Save the world? Make some difference?”
Newsham draws on all his experiences to pepper each tale with reflections and observations. Newsham’s free spirit fills every page. Within a few chapters, you know the ‘free ride’ concept is a perfect extension of his my-backseat-is-your-home approach to meeting people and being human.
The entries about the ‘free ride’ offerings would have made for a compelling book on their own, but Newsham adds depth and soul with stories from his upbringing and post-college youth. In particular are the sections about building a house in Idaho with his mates and the harrowing interactions with his mother, who suffered from mental health issues. There are stories about his love of baseball and The San Francisco Giants, a recurring theme about his celebrity status as the taxi driver who encouraged the carmaker Toyota to feature a cab in its television commercials for the Prius, and stories about all the bureaucracy and negotiations required to pull off a series of events with thousands of individuals spelling out messages on Ocean Beach (among them “IMPEACH” in January, 2007 to protest the invasion of Iraq.)
The 22 free fares itemized in the final chapter, “All-Rides-Free Day,” might be a place to head if you ever are feeling a bit down and out about your own personal mood.
In fact, you may be a bit befuddled about this whole concept, like the “shrunken, elderly woman” Newsham drives home from the Market Street Safeway with five bags of groceries in the taxi’s trunk. The woman is surprised but you won’t be. Not on Page 419. Of course Brad carries the bags to the top of her steps. Also like the woman, you may never have heard the concept of ‘free ride.’ But now you have.
“Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations … I want to be thoroughly used up when I die … If I should slip, if I should falter, tie the pen into my hand.”
Newsham drops that quote from George Bernard Shaw near the end of Free Ride. But it’s not just Newsham’s words that are making a difference, it’s about how he goes about his life—each and every day.
Brad’s earlier travel books:
David Shields makes it look easy—turning thoughts, experiences, attitudes, insights, personal history, wounds, slings, arrows, literary criticism, film criticism, and random reminiscences into compelling prose. Open the dictionary to a random page, throw a dart and give David Shields a prompt—you get the feeling he could riff off any random noun, verb or preposition. In “Other People: Takes & Mistakes,” which gathers a variety of previously published pieces and some fresh stuff too, Shields seems ravenous for topics. He’s a Pac Man Writer gobbling ghosts and monsters with an unwavering smile of his face.
Shields, the author of several novels and a host of non-fiction books, including the coauthoring of a biography of J.D. Salinger, is glib. And smart. And witty. And self-effacing. And insightful. And interesting. Other People is a keeper, a juicy mix tape. It’s funky and frank and, at times, tender and humane. Shields has the entries organized (okay, fine whatever) but you can dip in here, take a sample there. Some of the pieces are so rich (like the essay on Bill Murray) that you wonder how one person can find so much to write about another. Other offerings are mere morsels, poetic palate cleansers.
Like I said, there are sections. Men. Women. Athletes. Performers. Alter Egos. But David Shields is, naturally, omnipresent in all 70-plus of these wide-ranging entries. Shields will make you feel like you haven’t studied your heroes or really read that book, but his interests are unpretentious—sports, acting, sex, fiction, big ideas, little moments from childhood, personal humiliations.
He’s frequently funny. “Love Is Illusion” is a brisk three paragraphs that begins, “The most dramatic sexual experience of my life was a yearlong relationship with a woman whose entire philosophy, or at least bedroom behavior, was derived from the sex advice columns of racier women’s magazines … she applied lipstick and eye shadow in such a way to create the effect that she was in a perpetual state of arousal.”
Shields is not afraid to share his darkest thoughts, recount embarrassing moments, or (here and there) expose himself. From his brief essay about Tiger Wood: “My initial reaction when I saw on the web the report that Tiger Woods was seriously injured was What’s the matter with me that I hope he’s been paralyzed or killed? Jealousy. The much vaunted Schadenfreude. The green-eyed fairway. Tiger is extremely rich, famous (now infamous), semi-handsome (losing his hair), semi-black, the best golfer ever (was going to be), married to a supermodel (no longer, of course). I wanted him to taste life’s darkness. . . . I was disappointed that Tiger was O.K. (for the nonce). But, really, I think we all were.”
In “Information Sickness,” Shields documents his quirks and odd habits and yearnings and how his mind works. “My nightmares—and endless network of honeycombs, a thousand cracks in a desiccated lake—are always about the multiplying of chaos. Two questions constantly occur to me: What would this look like filmed? What would the sound track be? I grew up at a very busy intersection, and to me aesthetic bliss was hearing the sound of brakes screeching, then waiting for the sound of the crash.”
There are essays you can sink your teeth into (one about Charles Barkley) and others that seem like excuses to show his unpretentious touch with language. You know Shields cares about the flows and rhythms of the language as much as the content within.
“The sixties—which, as everybody knows, began in 1963 and ended in 1974—happened, like a sitcom, in the middle of my living room.
“I was president of the sixth grade of one of the most desegregated elementary schools in California, and when the BBC came to interview me, I spoke so passionately that they had to stop the film because the cameraman was crying.
“By the end of eighth grade it was a profound social embarrassment if you hadn’t ‘gotten married,’ which meant lost your virginity.”
This list of seemingly unrelated observations goes along. You think you’re missing something and then realize that Shields has pulled out his kaleidoscope, given it a shake. It’s an effective technique.
You get the feeling that if a thought crosses Shields’ brain, he’s going to spill it.
Shields’ blunt assessment of Charles Barkley is full of zingers. “He’s both truth-teller and scam artist, purveyor of old-school values with new-school style, a social conservative who throughout his playing career was a devotee of strip clubs, an antiauthority authoritarian, a rebel reactionary. After a difficult loss, he once said he felt like going home and beating his wife—the same woman he said made him cry every time they made love.”
In the end, Shields makes us understand why we all like Charles Barkley. “He’s alive, here, on this planet, right now. He’s a brilliant extemporizer, inside the moment, satyr-like, actively searching for the jugular of truth and—this is key to presenting moderation in an immoderate appetite—nearly always finding it in humor.”
Shields’ breakdown of Bill Murray’s essence is long. And detailed. And I couldn’t argue with one word but I had never stopped to think anything along these lines, either, trying to understand the layers of Murray’s charm. Shields notes that Murray “offers ways out, solutions of sorts, all of which amount to a delicate embrace of the real, a fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”
Between the essays of Barkley and Murray (can you imagine those two together?) that’s the essence of Shields, too. The “jugular of truth” mixed with “fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”
When he came through Denver recently for a book tour stop at The Tattered Cover, only a handful of people showed up. (What a crime!) Shields skipped any formal remarks and pulled the chairs around in a small circle, reading a few bits from Other People. He shot the breeze like he is one of us.
Previously reviewed: How Literature Saved My Life
Nutshell is at once hilarious, witty, smart, and unbelievable.
You don’t want to go with it. There’s the little issue of logic and the unborn child’s well-developed sentence structure, vocabulary, insights about the nature of humanity, near-omniscience, well-developed palette and keen self-awareness.
But with McEwan’s silky prose? It. Just. Doesn’t. Matter.
Resistance is futile.
Our narrator is “witness” to the sad de-coupling of his mother and father. Trudy, with child, is in the middle of an active and ongoing extended fling with the vapid Claude, who happens to be the brother of Trudy’s husband John. Trudy and Claude have a plan to accelerate their relationship and it involves ending John’s life and, well, our narrator has opinions and preferences. He’s taken sides.
“Who is this Claude, this fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes? I heard it once and took note: the dull-brained yokel. My full prospects are dimmed. His existence denies my rightful claims to a happy life in the care of both parents. Unless I devise a plan. He has entranced my mother and banished my father. His interests can’t be mind. He’ll crush me. Unless, unless, unless—a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.”
(Bleating little iamb, yes. Iamb. Just when your eye and cliché radar expect a bleating little lamb. Poetry plays a big role in the tapestry of Nutshell. John is a publisher and a poet and he has moved away from the dilapidated townhouse where Trudy remains to take up with a woman named Elodie who writes poems about owls.)
Our neonatal narrator (stole those two words from The Guardian) prefers to “remarry” mother and father “to unite my circumstances to my genome.” He thinks: “It’s in me alone that my parents forever mingle, sweetly, sourly, along separate sugar-phosphate backbones, the recipe for my essential self.”
So we have a narrator and a point of view but how will someone so perfectly unable to change the outcomes of the world out there be able to have an impact on fulfilling his needs? Hard to believe, but the ending is a thriller-tight and our pre-born narrator continues with his witty asides and daydreaming about all matter of human behavior even as he fights his way to, yes, freedom. Of sorts.
There are layers and layers to Nutshell, including ample references to Hamlet (Claude, Claudius; Trudy, Gertrude) and many other images that went straight over my head until pondering a few reviews.
I know, I know – it’s not supposed to work. I headed in (so to speak) with a great deal of cynicism. Oh sure, McEwan, what now?
Yeah, well, Nutshell is brilliant and brilliantly told. By the way, I listened to the audio version by Rory Kinnear and the performance is outstanding. I’d listen to it again just to listen to Kinnear utter the name Claude over and over. Clod but drawn-out and nasally and with that terribly British snark.
Previous review of McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.
Previous review of McEwan’s Solar.
A few thoughts on the launch of the third book in the Private Palmer series by the late Gary Reilly.
When you’re so seduced and comfortable and intrigued by the existing fictional landscape that you are plenty satisfied with the questions and the momentum of the story.
When you’re into the story but completely settled with all the existing parameters.
You’re so comfortable, in fact, that you aren’t thinking twist.
And, then, wham—gotcha.
By even starting out talking about the twist, I fear I’ll ruin the fun for others. It’s even difficult to review The Big Exit (such a doubly delicious title) without wanting to splatter all over the review space about what David Carnoy manages to pull off. But I’ll restrain myself.
The Big Exit is fun for lots of reasons long before, you know, that moment. Carnoy’s got an old-school Raymond Chandler vibe going with a story set in the dot-com world and Silicon Valley start-ups. At least, the set-up is old-school triangles and cover-ups. Love, greed, etcetera.
Richie Forman is our guy. He was big in dot-com marketing before the night of his own bachelor party, when he was arrested at the scene of a car crash that killed a young woman. With a high blood alcohol level, Richie gets arrested but he is pretty sure he wasn’t the one driving. He spends years in prison and while he’s behind bars his ex-fiancé takes up with the other guy who was in the car, his former best friend Mark McGregor. In fact, Beth Hill and Mark McGregor are married.
As The Big Exit starts Richie is looking to fill a job opening at The Exoneration Foundation, a firm dedicated to freeing innocent men from prison. He’s also making a living as a Frank Sinatra impersonator (a very colorful undercurrent throughout the book). But then McGregor turns up dead, with the word HACK scrawled in blood on the garage floor near his body. The cops quickly circle around both Richie and Beth as suspects and Carnoy gives good screen time to a full cast of interesting characters. There’s the prosecutor who put Richie away, the accident investigator, and a muckraking journalist who covers Silicon Valley, among others. Carnoy, who is executive editor of CNET, a website that reviews technology products, knows this turf well.
Carnoy shifts points of view, circles around, shows us different angles. The plot is one part legal caper, one part police procedural, and one part James M. Cain-ish darkness. Carnoy gives us plenty of Richie but the detectives and lawyers play a big role, too, and all the shifting keeps us nicely off balance. Detective Sergeant Hank Madden almost takes over the story. “In law-enforcement years, he’s ancient, a relic at sixty-two. After his promotion to detective sergeant last year, he retired the gold wire-framed, oversized glasses that his colleagues liked to suggest could be carbon-dated back to somewhere between the Disco and New Wave eras.” Madden has a drop foot from childhood polio but has a “minor act of heroism” that has come to define is career and he’s staying on at work beyond the point at which it makes financial sense, given potential retiree pay. It was Madden who was at the scene of the “Bachelor Disaster,” the case that would go to trial and end with a jury siding with McGregor, pinning the blame on Forman.
As the end comes down, Richie Forman with a splitting headache and his hands cuffed together around the legs of a sink in a laundry room, all hope is certainly lost and then, well, there are only a few pages left and you’re not going to stop before finishing this one.
The Big Exit is complex, memorable and fun. And forget I said anything about a twist.
A blog post for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers about the late, great Gary Reilly.
We’re on Long Island, the overlooked sections with dive bars like Harrigan’s. “It was a classic loser’s bar. The kind of place where even the young men were old. Where the Daily Racing Form passed for the news of the world and where the light of day was the common enemy.” The entire novel unfolds against a gritty backdrop and Coleman takes every opportunity to name overlooked towns and unremarkable roads.
Gus Murphy is a retired Suffolk County cop with a weight on his shoulders, the sudden death of his son two years earlier. It happened one day on the basketball court, when the boy was felled by an undiagnosed heart defect. The death has wrecked his family and now Gus works as a courtesy van driver for a nowhere hotel. Gus is just hoping to put one foot in front of the other and find a way to get by.
Where It Hurts (such a great title) is part mystery novels and part literary study in grief. “Even a spare minute was a chance to relieve the last two years,” thinks Gus. “Took forever to live it. Takes only seconds to live it again. I had tried filling in the fissures, cracks, and cavities with wondering, wondering about the trick of time. That got me about as far as wishing. Nowhere.”
The last thing Gus wants is to get pulled in on a case involving an ex-con, the aforementioned Tommy Delcamino. Tommy’s son TJ was found dead four months earlier and the Suffolk County PD doesn’t seem, well, motivated to figure out what happened. Gus is reluctant, for many reasons, and then he starts running into people who spend a great deal of time and effort trying to discourage him from getting involved. When he encounters real trouble, and more, Gus feels suddenly revived, “alive again in the midst of spilled blood.”
Needless to say, Gus Murphy finds the motivation to poke around and soon he’s plenty entangled. His slow-motion descent into the fray, coupled with the relentless gravity of the feelings of loss about his dead son, anchor the story in a feeling of genuine pain. At times dialogue-rich like George V. Higgins and other times neatly procedural like Michael Connelly, Where It Hurts presents a solid character with troubled shoulders leaning into very real problems, both internal and external.
Those problems show Gus a possible path to healing, but will he take it? Or does he want his pain to rule over everything else? Gus knows where it hurts, it’s up to him whether he wants to the pain to linger forever or make a change. Where It Hurts isn’t all action. There’s a fair amount of talk over beverages. But when the action comes, it’s real and it’s carrying a certain weight.
That’s the case with John Galligan’s Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. The cool but colorful writing style, the intercontinental story, the unsentimental portraits of a wide variety of characters, and the ever-growing realization of how well Galligan has layered the work, flailing hockey sticks in one country echoing the flying kendo sticks in another.
I was already a fan of Galligan’s work, having enjoyed three mysteries in his fly fishing series featuring trout bum Ned “The Dog” Oglivie.
The Wind Knot, The Clinch Knot and The Blood Knot are all peculiar, quirky, and lots of fun. Galligan’s got the same dry-eyed writing style in Red Sky, a sprawling story that doesn’t lend itself to easy synopsis. In his “mysteries,” a novel is prone to pop out. In Red Sky (“a novel by…”) a mystery (no surprise) lies at the core. Red Sky came out in 2001; the “Knot” novels later.
From the back cover: “When a young American teacher disappears in small-town Japan, the next teacher, an older man on the run from his troubled life, must find out the truth. Told from multiple viewpoints, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly explores the perilous attraction between men and women of different cultures, and the position of the white man in the new century.”
I couldn’t do much better than that, except urge readers to stick with Galligan as he moves back and forth from Japan to the United States and also back and forward in time. As with the “Knot” series, Galligan is not a big believer in holding the reader’s hand. He’s fine to let his main character chill for a bit while he works on another corner of the canvas. The pieces appear disconnected at first and then the bigger picture comes slowly into focus as each character comes around and their role in the tale becomes apparent.
We first meet Tommy Morrison coming into Japan. He’s got hockey in his background, a troubled marriage at home in the United States. At the airport, he encounters a few layers of extreme vetting, especially after his bag splits when on the conveyor. It’s not the last time he will be questioned about his intentions. Then we meet high school student Miwa Sato after calculus class in the town of Kitayama. She’s getting ready to somehow say good-bye to teacher number one. That’s Stuart Norton. It’s a “difficult leaving” for reasons that will become clear. There are other points of view from a variety of other Japanese characters, too, including an ex sumo wrestler.
(Readers, just go with the flow. Okay?)
The Galligan’s stylistic DNA is easy to spot. Galligan isn’t afraid of making a leap between moments. The style can feel a bit elliptical, but I urge readers to relax into it and let the scenes speak for themselves. The caulking becomes clear as the story proceeds—and that’s part of the pleasure of letting Red Sky come into sharper and sharper relief. (You’ll feel so smart, without even trying!)
I fully concede I’m easily drawn into a story when the writing is powerful and a few tasty paragraphs are enough for me. Galligan likes to warm up a paragraph with a few rapid-fire declarations of sights and smells, then deliver a long snaking sentence that takes you for a ride.
“By lunchtime, as Father decreed, the rain had stopped. The sun burned hot over the southern mountains. Starlings strutted on steaming roads. Dragonflies lifted on glittering wings from the flooded rice fields. The mountain breeze smelled of mud and worms and cucumber leaves, but as Noriko drove down toward Kitayama the air was gradually claimed by the gassy diesel trucks hauling in tents and platforms, by the burnt-miso aromas of cakes and cotton candy.”
Tommy “felt the sudden intensity of the forest around them. Leaves baked in the sun. Cicadas buzzed. Flies swarmed. Unfamiliar bird calls sawed and screeched and moaned through the heavy brush. When Tommy stood for relief he could see, framed in fans of rust-red sumac, the Kitayama valley far below deep and hot, a thousand dragonfly specks dotting the rice paddies; and then, against the opposite mountain, he found Kitayama town, blue and red rooftops packed in the curve of a wide and shallow river.”
It’s a coincidence that both those passages reference dragonflies—and also not. Lots of things buzz in Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. There are unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells throughout. After all, this is a story about a stranger in a strange land trying to understand the stranger who came before him and the new strangers he’s left at home.
Red Sky is about how an individual finds footing in a foreign culture and how individuals in that community use the visitor for their many-faceted needs. Red Sky, Red Dragonfly doesn’t assign blame or point fingers. This is just what happened to Tommy. This is what happened to Stuart. And this is what happened to the Japanese residents of Kitayama who knew them both.
From 2012, a Q & A with John Galligan about The Blood Knot and fly fishing and more, here.
That question is posed to Ross Duncan by Obadiah, a central figure in Christopher Bartley’s Unto the Daughters of Men.
Duncan, responding, shrugs and says: “I had a lot of time to read in prison and I used it.”
Yes, Ross Duncan. Gangster, tough guy, philosopher, observer of human nature. He reads the Bible for comfort or clues. He shoots when it’s necessary, throws a hard punch to make a point, talks up the dames at the bar. More than anything, he thinks about how people are put together.
It’s 1934. We’re in New York. It’s the fifth year of the Great Depression. Organized crime is discovering a new foundation for its thriving illegal empires. J. Edgar Hoover is after bank robbers—bank robbers like Ross Duncan. But Duncan also gets called on to handle specific jobs and the one in Unto the Daughters of Men is a beauty.
The aforementioned Obadiah, grandson of a runaway slave, is the doorman and all-around helper guy for “the Colonel,” a former soldier and senator. People tend to ask Duncan probing questions about his character and the Colonel wastes no time. He asks Duncan if he believes in the Devil.
“Wouldn’t I be a fool not to?”
“That’s a casual answer,” replies Colonel Bennett. “I am not asking you about a symbolic figure who represents all that’s bad in the world. I am asking about a literal Devil: Satan, Lucifer – God’s adversary, the fallen angel. Most men have an abstract notion of good and evil, but few anymore actually seem to believe that there is literally a Devil set on tempting them to spend an eternity in hell, a literal Hell. He opposes God’s plan. Do you believe he exists?”
I’m not giving away Duncan’s answer here. Suffice it to say that these are the issues that gnaw at Duncan on a daily basis. He struggles with right and wrong and, of course, does lots of right and plenty of wrong.
The Colonel has a proposal. He needs a man like Duncan, one with a “definite code.” Dorothy, one of the Colonel’s granddaughters, the one blessed with “God’s light and grace,” is died of a heart condition. The other granddaughter, Veronica, was last seen with a gangster, Remo Marsden, whose business is gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Since the Colonel is frail and knows his days are numbered, he needs Duncan to find Veronica and “bring her home, anchor her here where she is supposed to be, help bring her to a point of common sense.”
There’s been blackmail and rumors of a “blue photograph.” The Colonel wants bad-boy Remo out of the picture and Veronica back home and out of trouble.
This is a nifty, enticing, and delicious set-up, especially after what happens just a few moments after the Colonel extends his request for help.
Duncan finds trouble. In fact, he wastes little time entering the bad guy’s lair. Duncan cuts to the case. There is drinking, smoking, guns, cars, chases, a dame named Delilah and a thug named Beef Parker. There is also one of the most remarkable, near-poetic slow-motion car crash scenes you might ever read.
Bartley is in total control, start to finish. The Duncan novels are classic gangster stuff. The beginning, middle and end of this plot all carry the same steady, relentless tug of dark noir and all its smoky-boozy flourishes. (Getting Duncan to quit tobacco? Might be the battle of the century.) Duncan gets nicked and bruised and beaten and bloodied. He unravels stories, cuts through lies, shrugs off the pressure to keep his nose out of other people’s business.
But Ross Duncan keeps on ticking, fighting, and asking questions of others and questions of himself. He’s always working on the puzzles that get handed to him and he’s always working on the puzzles about the human condition, about good and evil, about God and The Devil, about right and wrong. (Good thing, there’s no easy answer in sight.)
The Ross Duncan novels (okay, I’ve only read three) offer a killer combination of a compelling character and cool, memorable stories.
Previous Q & A with Christopher Bartley and review: Naked Shall I Return
Previous review: They Die Alone
Who would want that particular challenge?
If you watched Trevor Noah early on and found yourself heading elsewhere for your political skewers and laughs, it may be time to check back. Trevor Noah has hit a groove. His humor is sharp. His sidekicks (Michelle Wolf, Roy Wood Jr., Lewis Black) are terrific. Plus, his interviews are smart. His passions and brainpower come through with his interviews. He is not afraid of a tough question.
Reading Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood will make you wonder: how in the world did a guy with that upbringing end up in that chair every night on Comedy Central? Born A Crime doesn’t cover that particular transition. The narrative only hints at Trevor Noah’s leap to a national television stage. Most of this memoir is focused on his early days in South Africa, particularly the utter poverty in Soweto. Born A Crime is deeply personal. In turns, it is harrowing, funny, and wild.
The best stories involve Noah’s status as half-black, half-white. Actually, all the stories seem to all revolve around his status (or apparent non-status). Noah is the son a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father. Black. And white. Not white, not black, not from the complicated heritage known as coloured. Born A Crime is a story of survival—among authorities, on the streets, in church, among scrappy teenagers, in the dance clubs, and among the opposite sex. Noah’s strong mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, dominates Trevor’s world. She’s the woman with a three-church Sunday routine. She’s fearless, exacting, and determined.
Frequently, Noah leans on his multilingual skills to overcome tight social and personal situations, particularly one harrowing moment in prison. Noah knows Zulu, Tswana, Tsonga, English (and more) and shows the power of language and its ability to soften potentially tricky situations. Noah grew up as an eternal outsider with his light skin in a sprawling black township of Soweto. That outsider status forced him to make tough social and personal decisions over and over again.
As a teenager, Noah built a business copying and selling pirated CD’s and then transitioned into a wildly popular D.J., throwing massive dance parties in a nearby shantytown called Alexandria. (The “Go Hitler” chapter offers a compelling reminder that the title of World Despot Ever goes to different people depending on where you live.)
Noah lived with death all around and, ultimately, violence comes home in the final gripping scenes as Noah’s drunken stepfather turns on Noah’s beloved mother with a gun. Riveting.
The book is as much about Noah’s mother as it is about Trevor. It’s clear that his mother wanted Trevor to set his sights on a distant horizon—and also wanted him to make good choices (even as he spent his formative years making poor ones, stealing candy or learning how to hustle stolen goods).
I listened to Trevor’s narration on Audible. He is a very good storyteller. He knows how to set the scene and build dramatic tension over and over again. He’s also a sharp observer. Of people, class, race, authority, religion.
And himself. He’s also, it seems, fearless. No wonder he felt like he could step into Jon Stewart’s shoes.
“The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”
It’s a brutal book. It’s violent, gritty and harsh. And it’s a big old chunk of pure storytelling.
Set in the late 1850’s, much of it on a whaling boat called the Volunteer, The North Water is one part adventure, one part crime story and all parts tale of brutality, survival and the limits of human endurance. McGuire writes with a present tense style that has the sensibility of a documentary.
This happened and that happened and so on. Now and now and now. Cinematic? Uh, yes.
At the core of the story are the ship’s surgeon, the drug-addicted Patrick Sumner, and the wickedly vile Henry Drax. The North Water starts in Hull and as the ship is preparing to venture off north toward the Arctic and from there it’s all downhill as the numbers of shipmates dwindle, as the ship busts apart (that cover illustration tells you all you need to know), as the survival begins, as the sense of bleakness and dread leaves a few tiny little human figures struggling against the vast white (where there isn’t blood) emptiness. If there’s a human bodily fluid or key internal organ that goes unmentioned, I’d like to know. It’s literally as if the inhabitants of this novel are turned inside-out.
Of course we have a hunch that not all will perish and McGuire adds a final coda back on dry land that deals with the moral fallout from a bigger crime that’s been underway all along, and partially forgotten as we have shivered and flinched and worried.
It’s a brilliant piece of writing. McGuire’s got a great eye for detail. The story flies. We don’t stop to learn about anything. McGuire leaves out all the parts that would Tom Clancy would not. We are simply immersed in a world that exists and asked to hang onto the gunwales, our knuckles whitening with each toss of the cold sea.
Finally, I have to point out that I listened to this on audio, narrated by John Keating. I firmly believe his reading enhanced the whole experience.
Keating has a bright, clean style. You can almost hear the smile in his voice, which contrasts so starkly with all the abject misery that voice is required to relay.
That’s the clarion call of one Conan The Grammarian, a.k.a. Susan Mackay Smith, who has been writing columns in the monthly newsletter from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for about ten years.
Now, Conan is out with a handy reference guide that distills those columns into an inspiring volume titled, handily enough, Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.
Remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? This book would sit handsomely on your shelf alongside it and all your other writing resources.
Conan sets a high bar for writing. And writers. Cool plots, Conan argues, can be enhanced by the nuances of language.
But, fear not. This is a light (near breezy) read that will leave you feeling encouraged and emboldened, not depressed or over-anxious. In fact, Conan talks a good game but, in the end, has “his” forgiving side, too.
Lawyers and journalists may get use out of the book, says Conan, “but this book is meant for novelists, who have their own requirements and, yes, rules. Which, like Jack Sparrow’s rules of piracy, are more like guidelines.”
Susan Mackay Smith is the past president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a frequent judge of the Colorado Book Awards, has been writing a monthly Conan the Grammarian column for over ten years. Traditionally published in fantasy under the nom de plume, Mackay Wood, she is a second-generation Colorado native with a degree in history and (more important to her) a BHSAI from the Porlock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England. She lives in Boulder with the most wonderful man in the world.
A full review follows.
First, a Q & A with Conan / Susan:
Question: Okay, we’ll start you out with a softball. Do you ever have to look anything up related to the rules of grammar or usage?
Susan Mackay Smith: Certainly – everyone does. For the column in particular, I often double-check that my instincts are correct. I also check terminology, because my brain is full, and I no longer remember the terms for every little nuance of the so-called rules.
Question: Your book makes learning and understanding grammar look easy. Why do the rules of grammar have to be so hard?
Susan Mackay Smith: They aren’t hard. The terminology is arcane, but English grammar is so stripped down, compared with other languages, that to call English grammar “hard” throws up a barrier to learning. English spelling is hard, but English grammar is simple. Learn a few basics (first person personal pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreements, how modifiers dangle) and the rest is easy.
Question: Do you have a grammar pet peeve? If you were benevolent dictator over all of the grammar universe, would you wave your magic wand over one specific issue and make it go away?
Susan Mackay Smith: A hard choice! Instead, let’s ask what I would make universal, and the answer becomes easier. Proper punctuation, and the aforementioned correct uses of first person personal pronouns (I, me, myself). Maybe this boils down to teaching the mechanics from an early age again … then no one would have to worry.
But two peevish misuses set my teeth on edge: it’s used for a possessive, and I’s, used at all.
Question: What is the number one biggest, most frequent grammar issue that you find that writers stumble over and/or wrestle with and/or seem to ignore the most?
Susan Mackay Smith: In the narrow realm of grammar, writers these days seem oblivious to what modifies what, how, and why. Dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers abound, leading to confused readers or to readers who end up sneering at the writer’s ridiculousness.
An example: At age six, Johnny’s mother gave birth to twins. Think about it. One sees similar errors everywhere. It’s as if writers and copy editors think, oh, the reader will figure it out. But the reader shouldn’t have to! Stopping reading for even a fraction of a second to figure it out interferes with the critical suspension of disbelief that creates enjoyable reading. Don’t we want readers to enjoy our work?
On the other hand, the biggest problem I see in fiction writing isn’t a grammar issue but one of craft: recognizing what’s not on the page. That is, what you intended to show or have the reader understand versus what you actually show, so the reader fails to grasp what you meant. Even multi-published, successful writers face this problem. Good critique groups can be vital in pointing out where something—motivation, rationale, emotion – didn’t translate from imagination to page.
Question: Conan the Grammarian is a funny book. It’s hilarious in many ways, including in its bluntness and certainty. But you also make it clear that the rules can be broken. Can you point to some good examples of rule breakers? And how to break the rules in the correct way?
Susan Mackay Smith: All good writers break the rules: e.e. cummings’s no capitals; James Joyce’s loaded run-on sentences; Shakespeare’s neologisms; Elmore Leonard’s skipping dialogue tags; Kent Haruf’s neglecting quotation marks; Dorothy Dunnett’s using foreign languages and atypical viewpoints; Carol Berg’s dropping -ly in most adverbs…
Breaking the rules correctly is quite a droll concept, but my maxim – Conan’s maxim – is that writers have to know a rule to break it effectively. Sometimes a fragmented sentence is merely strange and hard to read, but in a good writer’s hands, a fragment gives evocative emphasis to the prose.
Question: How did you come to care so much about the right and wrong way to put sentences together?
Susan Mackay Smith: Isn’t that a writer’s job? Writers should care – words and sentences are how stories get told. Words and sentences are how we humans communicate.
Question: As a longtime judge for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold contest (and other contests, I’m sure), can you tell within a page or so whether a writer has a firm grasp on grammar? And has a good writing “voice”? How?
Susan Mackay Smith: Less than a page, for the basics. That first mistake alerts me, and if more crop up, I look for those instead of focusing on the story. “That’s not fair,” some contestants may say; but life isn’t, editors and readers aren’t, and that’s reality. Contests are a teaching tool – teaching entrants how their work is perceived by readers who are strangers, readers who see only what is on the page. If what’s on the page is replete with errors, that’s no one I care to read, however great the story buried in the mistakes may turn out to be. Mistakes make for hard reading. Life’s too short.
As for voice, those who have a good one, whether their own storyteller’s voice or a good character voice, are immediately apparent, from a great first line that flows organically into the next line, then the next, consistent and real, with some spark that says, this character is a person, or this writer has a unique clarity and way with words.
Question: You’ve been writing the Conan the Grammarian column for RMFW’s newsletter for years. How did you go about the process of culling through those and shaping them in book form?
Susan Mackay Smith: I reread all the columns and sorted them into rough categories – punctuation, grammar, craft, and so on – then realized I had several that were pep talks or moral support rather than about mechanics or language. Those became the introductory and concluding sections, which provided a starting place and a goal for the rest. Then it became a process of combining or deleting duplicate columns from within the rough categories, and working for a good flow from topic to topic. It was fun (I’m a re-writer anyway).
Question: I learned a new word I did not know reading this book: swivet. Good one! There were many others as well, especially in the “Toward More Colorful Writing” chapter. How does a writer know when a choice word is the right one and not just, you know, showing off?
Susan Mackay Smith: Why not show off? But the trick is, make sure your word fits your character and/or your time period and genre, and be sure odd words or non-standard uses are clear in context. (Critique groups help here!) For example, if your scene shows your protagonist freaking out, and another character tells her, “Don’t get in such a swivet,” it will be clear in context. But if the opening line of the novel says, “Mary Sue was in a swivet that morning,” not so much.
Question: In the age of Twitter abbreviations and emoticons, where is grammar heading? What is the future of grammar? What will the nuns be concerned about if they don’t have grammar to fire up their sense of order and discipline?
Susan Mackay Smith: I’m not a psychic, nor do I play one on TV, but (easiest point first) I don’t think emoticons will ever substitute for evocative writing. Emoticons set tone in a Tweet or email, where the brevity might not allow the writer’s intent to be clear otherwise.
As for Twitter, etc., pray we never get to the stage where novels are written full of three and four letter acronyms! Tweets ignore punctuation because of character limitations, but I sincerely hope that doesn’t become standard in all writing, because punctuation serves Conan’s God of Clarity, making communication easier.
That said, limiting yourself to 140 characters can be a useful exercise in clear and concise writing, which helps any writer hone basic skills.
Question: What are you working on now? What’s next?
Susan Mackay Smith: I am finishing the revision of a YA fantasy, the first of a projected two-book set. What should be next is starting the submission process again. A couple of years ago, I had given myself a vacation from submitting, then life got in the way, as it is wont to do, so I’ve neglected the be persistent aspect of a writer’s job. Time to get back on the horse named Never Give Up.
Podcast interview with Susan Mackay Smith on The Rocky Mountain Writer.
Do the rules of grammar turn your knees to jelly? Do you cower at the mere mention of relative clauses, the past perfect tense, or participial modifiers?
But I’m getting better. And now I’ve got Susan Mackay Smith’s Conan the Grammarian: Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers on my side. I mean, right by my side.
Drawn from Smith’s decade of writing the ‘Conan’ column for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ monthly newsletter, this book is not only handy and useful, it’s inspiring.
Yes, grammar can be inspiring.
If you think that reading this would be the equivalent of getting your knuckles rapped by an irascible nun, think again.
Conan the Grammarian is funny, breezy, and wicked smart. (Wickedly smart?) Smith places the idea of understanding and appreciating grammar in a more powerful context. And that, quite simply, is the desire to help writers tell their stories with more sharpness, precision, and impact. Thinking about grammar is thinking about writing—and writing clearly.
Writes Smith in the introduction: “To begin at the beginning, this book examines the craft of fiction from the perspective of grammar and usage. This is not a book of Rules. Though it includes many grammatical terms, the purpose isn’t to teach terminology but to elucidate how the language works so Careful Writers can wield their tools to best advantage for their stories For what matters isn’t only the story; it’s how the story is told.”
The book is divided into six parts: On Language; In the Beginning Was the Word; Structure and Bone: Grammar; The Sinews: Punctuation; Heart and Soul: The Novelist’s Craft; and Battle Scars.
Smith writes in second person as “Conan,” an alter-ego with a stern sensibility. But Conan is nothing if not funny and entirely self-aware and “his” particular, enjoyable voice makes this volume eminently readable:
Herewith, three examples
“A euphemism is the substitution of a less negative or more general word or phrase for a blunt or embarrassing one. Conan, as readers are learning, prefers specifics for fiction, which is why euphemism comes under Bad Habits. Lots of swear words are euphemistic—drat and darn for damn; heck for hell; shoot for—you get the idea.”
The Passive Voice
“What is passive voice? Why is it uniformly castigated as Bad Writing? Why is it wrong, and why should you care?
“First, let’s discuss what passive voice is not. Someone has perpetrated a heinous canard that passive voice equates to using the verb to be, e.g., was and were. Whoever is responsible, please stop! While Conan has elsewhere explained that to be forms are state of being words and, when used instead of more muscular verbs, may impart limpness in writing, that doesn’t mean they are passive voice. Got it? Stop spreading this pernicious fallacy, or Conan will get grumpy, and that’s something nobody wants. It’s never a pretty sight.”
The Serial Comma
“Conan believes the serial comma is never wrong. You the writer aren’t the best judge of your text’s possible ambiguity, since you know what you intended to say. Make a habit of the serial comma and let the editor remove it, the lunkhead.”
Writers, Conan the Grammarian will give you a few dozen different ways to approach your revisions and self-editing, from clichés of characterization (watch those head nods) to dialogue tags to that dreaded first sentence. It’s also a handy reference guide (with a thorough index to boot).
Conan approaches grammar as a writer who cares about good writing and not as a authoritarian technocrat only interested in The Rules. In fact, Conan makes a good argument about knowing the rules first in order to break them. And, along the way, Conan shows a depth of knowledge about the history of language and the power of good writing with references to everyone form Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor. A bibliography runs for a couple of pages; you will be very busy trying to keep up.
Finally, Conan is beautifully designed and I did not spot one typo or word out of place. You have to figure, on that basis alone, that Conan knows “his” stuff.Q &
Conan the Grammarian only costs $10. Okay, to be as precise as Conan, $9.95. A steal. Get it.
You’ll have a goldmine in your hands.