Regional Books: Shotgun Lovesongs and Cold Storage, Alaska

“DSC00011” by Neil Rickards is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

One of the endearing things about experts is how much escapes their notice. I’m not talking about peripheral matters outside their sphere of expertise. Even things smack dab in their wheelhouse may elude them. 

Sometimes, the oversight may be merely geographic.

Take literature. In the United States, “literary fiction” resides in one or two postal codes on the island of Manhattan. The Big Five Publishers and most of their subsidiary imprints are located there—not to mention most of the editors, agents, reviewers, and listmakers (That’s you, New York Times!) who define the genre. 

Once, American Literature may have radiated from Concord, Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. But since the Civil War or even earlier, New York is The Place. Even otherwise sophisticated people seldom look beyond their own desk and dinner table. Ergo, “literature” is that which is written by people in New York City. Or at least, written by people who know the folkways of the Five Boroughs or could feel themselves at home there—and who write that way.

Kate Chopin. Public Domain.

However: A funny thing happened on the way to the twentieth century. New York critics discovered “regional” writing (also called “local color”). After the Great Conflagration of the nineteenth century, a few southerners (e.g., Kate Chopin), westerners (Mark Twain), and New Englanders (Emily Dickinson) wrote works surprisingly worth reading, despite their focus on far-flung American localities—perhaps, even, because of it. In view of the Recent Unpleasantness, the literary world recognized some kind of national duty to make believe that We Were All Americans, even though some of us were entangled in local allegiances. 

By the time I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and ’60s, the literati had digested this wave of regional literature and had reduced it to a few specimens in high school anthologies; a few required books, such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia; and a general recommendation to read works by Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, William Faulkner, August Derleth, Erskine Caldwell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett. The tacit assumption behind this neat packaging of regional literature was that its efflorescence had been temporary, and literature could now revert to normal.

Today, however—more than fifty years later—almost every bit of what’s called “literary” (meaning serious and well-written) fiction is regional, in one way or another. “Local color” writing turns out to have been a hardy varietal that could not be weeded out.

Take Shotgun Lovesongs, a 2014 debut novel by Nickolas Butler. It presents four friends raised in the fictional hamlet of Little Wing, Wisconsin. Three had left to pursue careers in the wider world; one, Henry, had stayed in town to work the dairy farm his parents left him. Now some years have gone by. Kip the Chicago commodities trader, Ronny the rodeo rider, and Lee the music star have all returned—each drawn back by the mystical lure of home. With lots of scenes set in the VFW hall and in the town’s once-derelict (now gentrifying) feed mill, the book has plenty of the familiar cheese curds-peppermint schnapps-cow manure atmosphere that says Wisconsin. But it’s less about local color, less even about the varied career paths the four main men have taken, and more about their loves and friendships—among themselves, with various neighbors, and with the women and children in their lives. So yes, Shotgun Lovesongs is about the glory of the Wisconsin life, but it’s also about the hard things that we Badgers can inflict on one another. It’s not just a Wisconsin book, it’s also a full-fledged “literary” novel in the usual sense, and a fine one at that. It may not be coincidence that the author was educated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has influenced so many other fine writers.

Another good regional book is John Straley’s Cold Storage, Alaska. Though just as “regional” as Shotgun Lovesongs—maybe more so—and just as deserving of the “literary” label, Cold Storage, Alaska is quite different in tone and approach. For one thing, it’s at heart a crime novel. Most of the characters who move the plot are crooks, writ large or writ small. At the same time, there is something worthy of redemption in each of them. The non-criminal central character, Miles, a health care provider in the Alaska village of Cold Storage, is more reactive than active—yet he’s the stable tentpole around which the whole circus revolves. His arc, though subtler than those of his brother and the other grand and petty crooks in this book, is also perhaps more profound. His great challenge is to remain human while also honoring his compulsion to care for others. Those others, in a place like Cold Storage, are not always easy to serve. If you like crime bosses who aspire to be screenwriters, rock bands who get paid in fish, and an innkeeper-impresario whom wild creatures address in English . . . be sure to pay a visit to Cold Storage.

These are but two among hundreds of books published these days—and in an unbroken train since the beginning of literature in America—with both regional attributes and unmistakable literary talent. It is a great time to be an author . . . or a reader.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Radio Days

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

A boy named Izzy Mahler, seven years old, springs out of bed and dashes down the stairs. It is a Saturday morning in October, 1952. 

The Old Philco

Barefoot and pajama’d, Izzy makes straight for the wooden Philco radio, switches it on. Izzy remembers going downtown with Dad to bring home the Philco and its fine supporting table. Ever since—through three apartments, the birth of little Christine, and now the move to this two-story house just across the alley from Grant School—the Philco has been the Mahlers’ proudest possession, and the most useful.

Moving on to the kitchen, Izzy opens the refrigerator, takes out a quart of milk, removes the round cardboard cap from the glass bottle’s neck, and pours himself a glass. Then he sits down at the kitchen table and listens as the radio set in the living room spills forth Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, and Space Patrol. He sees every detail of each story.

Commander Buzz Corey is just cutting his way into Jelna’s spaceship with an atomic cutting torch when Mom and Dad come out in wrinkled pajamas, rubbing their heads with their knuckles. Izzy wishes he had an atomic cutting torch like Buzz Corey’s, or even just a plain old cosmic ray gun. He would give it to President Eisenhower for copying. That way, should American soldiers run into bug-eyed monsters from Planet Orkulon, they’d be ready.

Christine bangs her tin cup on the wooden tray of her high chair, but Izzy hardly hears. Why can’t you get a ray gun by sending in box-tops? he wonders. A ray gun would take more boxtops, and probably more quarters, than the usual things like the Lone Ranger decoder ring he lost while helping Buster Wiggins plant potatoes—but it would be worth it. He hopes none of the Wigginses will bite into a spud and break a tooth on his decoder ring. 

Now Christine squalls to beat the band, so loud that Izzy can’t hear the radio.

“Harold,” Mom says. Dad stares into space, as usual. Mom plunks down the checkbook with a loud WHACK! Dad sighs and sits down at the kitchen table.

Izzy goes upstairs and gets dressed. When he comes down, Dad frowns over his slide rule, while Mom knits her brows over numbers scrawled on paper with a pencil. 

Izzy opens the back door. Dad looks up. “Where are you going, son?”

“Out to play,” Izzy says.

“Be home for supper,” says Mom.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Out of the Ether

I was born in 1945 into a family that couldn’t, or at least didn’t, afford a television set until 1957, when everybody else had already had a set for two or three years. As a result, I was privileged to be present at the last stand of radio broadcasting as a mass entertainment medium—before TV gobbled up radio’s best shows, and most of its advertising revenue, added a few original programs of its own, and became—well, Television. As we know it.

If you did not experience those “radio days,” let me assure you: radio was great. All the action, all the drama, all the excitement, all the laughs of TV—only you could see it better, because everything played on the full color, panoramic, high-definition screen inside your mind—with all the pans, tilts, and zooms each story required. 

Stan Freberg, the advertising world’s comic genius, produced a radio spot, “Stretching the Imagination,” that perfectly illustrates the vast cinematic potential of the sound-only medium. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppZ57EeX6vE.

An Embarrassment of Riches

What kind of shows did radio offer? Besides the Saturday morning fare Izzy consumed in our fictional vignette, there were:

Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. “roy_trigger_new_color72.jpg” by amycgx is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Westerns galore, all of the juvenile variety: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. But most of all, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:30 p.m.: “In the pages of history there is no greater champion of justice than this daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, who, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, led the fight for law and order in the early West. . . . Return with us now to those gripping days of yesteryear—the Lone Ranger rides again!

Northerns, starring Royal Canadian Mounted Police like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his famous lead dog Yukon King; and mountie Jim West, The Silver Eagle, voiced by radio legend Jim Ameche—one of the Amici boys from Kenosha, Wisconsin—on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Lone Ranger’s 6:30 time slot. 

Game shows like The Quiz Kids and The 64-Dollar Question. That’s not a misprint. Sixty-four dollars was the top prize. That was big money. When television came along, the same show was recycled, “isolation booths” added for showmanship, and three zeroes tacked on to the prizes—so it became The $64,000 Question.

Audience-participation shows like Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny or Ralph Edwards’ Truth or Consequences, in which typical Americans made fools of themselves, on the screen in your mind, for fame, glory, and small sums of money. They may have been forerunners of what is today called “reality TV.” 

Comedies, glorious comedies of all descriptions. There was the pompous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; you could not even see his lips move—at least, on the radio. There were situation comedies of small-town life, like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve. Others relied on ethnic identities: The Goldbergs (not to be confused with the 2013 TV series of that name), Life with Luigi (in which Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish played the title Italian character), and Amos ’n’ Andy (a show whose African American title characters were created and portrayed by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll). There were comedies about teenagers—Henry Aldrich, Corliss Archer, My Little Margie, and the high school denizens taught by Our Miss Brooks. And there were wholesome family shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. (Leave It to Beaver, the classic exemplar of this kind of show, never appeared on radio; it was a creature of television only.) 

And then there was The Jack Benny Show, in some ways the forerunner of modern shows like Seinfeld. To say the Benny show was comedy is true enough; but it hardly does justice to the subject. Jack Benny was an institution. Perhaps a good subject for a later blog post.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Review: More or Less Annie

More or Less Annie, by Wisconsin author Tracey Gemmell, is an entertaining book. The author’s sharp eye for absurdity informs every page of this funny, fast-paced, delayed-coming-of-age novel.

Annie Hardcastle is an English housewife, a part-time cake decorator who surfs the Web while she dreams of escape to exotic places around the world. When she and her husband, Lester, win the lottery, it seems her dreams are about to come true. It’s off to Costa Rica, where they find it’s not so easy to get away from the implications of their windfall wealth. 

Jet ski. “IMG_0504” by Jorge Santos72 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The novel also features Taylor and Charles, a Chicago power couple on the skids and looking for revenge.

Annie’s hopes for a smooth transition to a wonderful new life begin to unravel, but she persists in striving to find out who she is and how she can turn money into happiness.

It’s not only a story for women, but can be enjoyed by everybody. There are traces of romance, but it’s not a romance. With its quirky interpersonal dyamics and its lush tropical setting, More or Less Annie is the perfect summer beach read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Shameless Appeal for Comments

When I started writing this blog, a few weeks ago, I hit upon the–I thought–clever device of signing each post: “Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author.” A branding ploy, if you will; a not-so-subliminal attempt to influence your subconscious mind.

But it has occurred to me that it may be merely an irritating affectation. Maybe it annoys you, rather than endearing me to you.

So, what do you think: Should I keep it, or give it the deep six? Please discuss.

Thanks,

Larry F. Sommers, Who Hopes to Become Your Favorite Author

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

On page 153 of wildlife scientist Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, nineteen-year-old Kya Clark—the “Marsh Girl” of a certain section of the Carolina coast—recalls a poem by “a lesser-known poet,” Amanda Hamilton:

Trapped inside,

Love is a caged beast, 

Eating its own flesh.

Love must be free to wander,

To land upon its chosen shore

And breathe.

Bits of Amanda Hamilton’s poetry recur throughout the book; and though the fictitious poet does not play a large part in the story, the six lines just quoted could well stand as the Marsh Girl’s personal manifesto. For Kya Clark’s story is one of isolation, of love frustrated, and of a huge conflict between hoped-for relation and indispensable freedom.

Abandoned by parents and siblings, spurned as “swamp trash” by the larger community, possessed of tenuous alliances with a handful of individuals, Kya raises herself. She marches to her own tune, responds to Nature in all its variety. She collects feathers, shells, leaves, and other wild things; eventually she builds a catalog of her collection. She delves ever deeper into her wetlands environment to go “where the crawdads sing.”

“Euastacus Clark, 1936, Spiny Crayfish” by David Paul is licensed under CC BY 4.0 

Crawdads (which you may know as crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies) do not actually sing. But an imagined place where crawdads do sing is the author’s symbol for mystic union with Nature. The quest for that union turns out to be, after a host of disappointments in her relations with the human race, Kya’s only constant chord of survival energy.

Along the way she learns a great deal, becomes an acknowledged authority on the life of the marsh, and forms romantic relationships with two men (yes, a sort of love triangle)—one of which works out better than the other. However far life takes her, however, it is the quest to go where the crawdads sing that defines her.

Much else in this book will entertain and delight the reader: sudden death, mayhem, police procedures, courtroom drama, and the verses of Amanda Hamilton and others. At its heart is the story of the Marsh Girl, a remarkable woman who remains an enigma to the end. Speaking of which, do make sure you read all the way to the end. Even at that point, you may be surprised.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Boatman on the Tamsui

Taipei, 1968

The boatman bends to his oars. He guides his sampan with the ease of a sage, gliding by a large gate, toward a three-masted junk that looms beyond. Shadows and ripples tether him to water, yet he hangs suspended, the center point on which the misty harbor turns. 

“Look at this, Ralph.” 

My drinking-, carousing-, philosophizing-buddy peers through the shop window at the row of canvases. “I can’t believe the same guy painted all of these.”

“Me neither.” Six oils in sepia monochrome. Five show stark village streets, all sharp angles, hard lines, crisscossed phone wires; the sixth reveals a dreamscape that evokes the timeless China of peasants and poets. All six have the same name at the bottom.

“Good afternoon, you like these paintings?” A man stands at my elbow. A smiling man, a chubby Chinese with a servile aura. (Hen heqi,“very affable,” his mother might say.) He wears dress slacks and a gray short-sleeve shirt, stands before the storefront, shares our perspective on the art.

“Not bad,” I say.

“These are my paintings.” He smiles full wide. “I am Peco Yeh.” He shakes hands, gives us each a small card. On one side, Chinese characters; on the other, in English,  “Peco Yeh, Traditional Chinese Artist.”

Sidewalk commerce, typical for Chungshan North Road. I downplay the boatman in his watery realm, feign attraction to the sterile village scenes. But Peco Yeh homes in on my real interest. “This, Tamsui River,” he says.

Chungshan North Road, 1960s. Courtesy Taipei Air Station Blogspot.

“Local scenery, huh?” 

He waxes lyrical on Taiwan’s mountains and rivers. Besides his fawning attitude, typical for Chinese pitchmen, there is something else. One can’t mistake Peco’s effeminate manner. It suggests he is queer—a surprise, in broad daylight, here in Chiang Kai-shek’s Methodist/Confucian state. However—to each his own. He’s trying to sell his paintings, that’s all.

Ralph bad-mouths the artwork. I walk away twice; both times Peco Yeh shepherds me back to the storefront for “one more little look.” Eventually I make the watery scene my own for three dollars American, twenty-two less than his original price. The artist smiles, gives us a good-bye wave, bends his head, palms together, in the timeless Asian gesture.

A fictionalized account of true events.

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Larceny at Twice the Price

My only defense: It was a different time and place. The event narrated above is fictional only to the extent that I have invented bits of dialog I can’t recall, word for word, from fifty years ago.

Ralph and I were U.S. airmen stationed on Taiwan to monitor radiocommunications of the Chinese Communist Air Force, who flew operations just across the hundred-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. We had been taught Mandarin Chinese for eavesdropping purposes; it also came in handy when we mingled with the people of Taipei. 

Young men on our own in a place where most prices are negotiable, we took haggling to extremes. We prided ourselves on the discount we could wring from anyone selling anything. The sum of three dollars in those days was equivalent to about twenty-two of today’s dollars. One U.S. dollar bought forty NT (New Taiwan dollars), the local currency. You could get a nice restaurant dinner for half that or less. So Peco Yeh got more purchasing power from me than may be apparent. Still—when you consider that Peco’s asking price of twenty-five U.S. dollars would be less than two hundred today—I feel chagrin at having driven such a hard bargain, in the service of youthful pride. 

The value derived from this picture is far beyond the three dollars paid. That price, by the way, included the wood frame that the canvas still wears today. I took the whole thing to the U.S. Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity just up Chungshan Road. They crated and shipped it to my mother and father in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for fifteen dollars—five times what I had paid for the painting, but a worthwhile expense. 

The canvas graced my parents’ living room wall for decades. It came back to me when they died. Now it hangs in our house, where I pass it every day, oblivious to the quiet beauty it radiates. When I do stop to notice, I can’t believe my good fortune in having encountered Peco Yeh fifty years ago in Taipei. 

In Search of Peco Yeh

Who was Peco Yeh? It seemed he spent a lot of time on the street, promoting his art to any American who happened to walk by. His effete manner made him the butt of ridicule. “That guy’s as queer as a three-dollar bill,” one of my fellow airmen said. In 1968 “queerness” was not accepted. Homosexuality, although common and known of (even in the military), stayed under cover.

A Google search on “Peco Yeh” yields thumbnail photos of a few pictures attributed to him on various online auction sites, at modest prices. The paintings shown do not much resemble my boatman in style or substance, any more than did the stark village scenes with which it appeared in the store window. Peco, I think, dabbled in many styles.

Some sites give an unattributed, apocryphal biography of the artist:

“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”

A romantic tale. It seems farfetched. Could it be true? Yes. Stranger things have happened. 

China was in turmoil in the late 1940s. Communists under Mao Tse-tung defeated Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, the Nationalists fled the mainland, occupied Taiwan, became its government. Wikipedia says, “The Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), its officers and approximately 2 million troops took part in the retreat; in addition to many civilians and refugees, fleeing from the advances of the Communist People’s Liberation Army.” Most civilian escapees came from Sichuan or other southern provinces.

The thumbnail bio puts Peco Yeh on Taiwan two years before the main exodus. That’s possible; or it could be a misprint. He is said to hail from Chengdu, which happens to be the capital of Sichuan. Many civilians who fled with the Nationalist Army were members of, or related to members of, the upper crust. The mistress and child of a former imperial court artist could have been among them. So this narrative, though extravagant, may be true. Hard to tell.

I pray that Peco Yeh lived out a long life to its proper natural conclusion. And may God forgive me for appropriating his fine artwork at such a mean price. 

Mountains and Water

Whatever the merits of his other works, the one that hangs on my wall seems to me a fine example of a modern impressionistic work that embodies important elements from classical Chinese art: Careful composition, calligraphic brushwork, and the suggestive use of negative space—areas of the canvas that seem occupied by nothing at all yet contain the universe in that nothingness. The effect is of beauty, tranquillity, eternity. The masters of the Southern Song would recognize an affinity with their landscapes.

Chinese people use the term shan-shui(山水), “mountains and water,” to mean both natural scenery and the landscape painting that depicts it. They also have an old maxim, “The wise delight in the mountains; the good delight in the waters.” 

I can only hope the delight I now take in Peco Yeh’s Taiwan waterscape, purchased in 1968, suggests some upward evolution of my soul in the intervening fifty years.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Birth of “Beneath the Flames”

This is a guest post by Gregory Lee Renz, author of  Beneath the Flames

Greg Renz

Storytelling is ingrained in the culture of the fire service. I was a firefighter for twenty-eight years, retiring as a fire captain. Invariably, after one of our more dramatic responses someone would say that someday they should write a book about all of this. Of course, very few ever did. So when I retired I decided I would. After all, over my twenty-eight years on the department, I had gained a deep well of experiences and colorful characters to write about, and I was an avid reader. So how hard could it be to write a book? I would soon learn. 

How to Become a Writer in Hundreds of Hard Lessons

At least I had the sense to enroll in a creative writing course with the University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies program. That’s when I realized I knew nothing of creative writing. I sucked. Thankfully, the patient instructors were able to inspire me to keep working at this extremely challenging craft. I had compelling stories to tell but did not have the tools to tell them. I kept working, and my writing improved to the point where I began to receive awards in contests. At the UW Writers’ Institute several years ago I was awarded first place in both fiction and nonfiction in their writing contest. This was the validation I needed to continue working on my novel BENEATH THE FLAMES

I realized I was a writer when I could not give up and walk away from the story. The vast majority of people who begin writing a novel will never finish it. It’s damn hard work. Some days are incredibly frustrating. But then some days fill me with such elation that I know I can never give up writing. There’s nothing like entering my fictional world and letting the story and characters come to me. The power of the creative mind is endless. I just have to give in to it.

Book Launch Coming Up

After ten years of creative writing courses, workshops, conferences, and writing group critiques, the dream is finally coming true. May 31 I will be launching my novel at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee at 7:00 p.m. It’s been a long road: endless revisions, rejections from literary agents, and self-doubt. Without the guidance of the patient instructors of The Continuing Studies Program and the energizing conferences and workshops, this would still be a dream. The best advice I can give other writers is to attend as many conferences and workshops as possible. I have made so many friends and contacts over the years who have inspired me to keep writing and are now supporting the publication of my novel. It is this network of writing friends who will keep you going through the tough times when you doubt yourself and your story. 

All in a Day’s Work

Now begins the other side of writing a book—the process of promotion and marketing. What an eye-opener this has been. Firefighters often say that we were just doing our job when we make a rescue or save a home. And we’re serious. If we happen to be in the right place at the right time, we do what we have to do. Sometimes that can be challenging and incredibly dangerous. But that isour job.

Now, as a writer, I’m supposed to go out and promote myself. I can’t say I was just doing my job as an author. Not too many people would be drawn to my novel if that’s how I pitched it. Now there are interviews, television appearances, newspaper interviews, and book signings. I have to admit this is quite fun and exciting, but what comes with this is the stress of coming off well and being entertaining with the talks.

So it’s been quite a journey and if you can’t walk away from your writing desk, chances are in your favor to succeed. Persistence, persistence, persistence.

If you want to know more about me and my novel please visit my website at https://glrenz.com. You can also preorder my novel there with free shipping until June 1.

Here’s a sample of the many advance reviews the book has received so far:

“Renz draws on his years of experience as a firefighter to bring a hardscrabble authenticity to his novel. He packs the tale with plenty of action and a lot of heart. His firefighting sequences are detailed and thrilling, placing readers right in front of the flames. His prose is clean and, at times, poetic.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Gregory Renz’s new novel is a triumph of poignancy, compassion, and restraint. In it, a man’s regret is transformed to triumph.”—Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean
BENEATH THE FLAMESis an action-packed debut novel with something for every reader: suspense, romance, friendship, forgiveness, family, and more.  A novel that like its protagonist, relentlessly presses on into fiery and controversial terrain where many other writers fear to tread.”—Nickolas Butler, author of The Hearts of Menand Little Faith

Gregory Lee Renz, retired fire captain and author, was inducted into the Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2008 Gregory traded his turnout gear for a writing desk to pursue his passion. Storytelling. He now lives in Lake Mills, Wisconsin with this wife Paula.

Time and Again . . . and Again . . . and Again . . .

Until now, I have read nothing by Stephen King, one of the major authors of our time—because I have no interest in horror. But King also published a time-travel book in 2012; and that has finally drawn me into his web.

11/22/63. The title will wake up anyone who remembers that date. It’s the day John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. King’s book is based on the premise, “What if you could go back in time and prevent the killing of JFK?”  

The Story

Kennedy motorcade in Dallas. Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.

Maine school teacher Jake Epping discovers, in a local diner, a “rabbit-hole” through which he can walk from the present day into the morning of September 9, 1958. Jake has several reasons to travel back in time, but mainly there looms the tantalizing possibility that by regressing to 1958 and living out the next five years of that era, he will find a way to prevent the assassination of the president.

Time-travel stories usually consider the opportunity, however theoretical, of curing the present by doctoring the past. Jake Epping, in his role as first-person narrator, repeatedly asserts: “Life turns on a dime.” 

That’s not always true. For example, it would be hard to dismantle the complex chain of events that caused Europe to stagger into the First World War. Similar factors hold sway over the U.S. Civil War, the French and Russian revolutions, and the growth of “big box” superstores. 

But there are individual events, with major rippling consequences, that might be erased from time’s log by a small, practical effort applied at the right moment. Events like the assassination of President Kennedy.

The character Jake Epping seems convinced that if only Kennedy had lived, all sorts of bad things would have been avoided, and better things would have taken their place. To those of us who lived through those years, the theory does have its appeal. The murder of Kennedy, falling like a bolt of lightning into our postwar “happy time,” seemed to trigger a downward spiral for America, a sad cycle from which we have never recovered.

History, Re-organized?

History, however, is not that simple. Perhaps a full-term Kennedy would have managed not to stumble into the Vietnam War as his successor did. That’s possible, but far from certain. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Kennedy, despite all good intentions, would have failed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Bill enacted—a project at which Lyndon Johnson succeeded. We cannot know how things would have worked out, because the actual events of 22 November 1963 did sweep Kennedy away, leaving LBJ in his place.

But it’s entertaining to read about Jake Epping’s compulsive quest to derail Lee Harvey Oswald. Entertaining because the hero is thwarted by obstacles and complications at every turn. The rabbit-hole’s outlet in 1958 compels him to live in Texas for five years as he waits for the actors to arrive on stage. The secrecy of his mission requires him to adopt an alias and do a lot of perilous sneaking around as he spies on Oswald and his family and tries to keep tabs on a shady character named George de Mohrenschildt. In the midst of all that, Jake encounters the woman of his dreams and falls in love. 

King of Time

Everything falls apart more than once in this complex story. Jake Epping, growing ever wiser in the ways of the Space-Time Continuum, states clearly that the main problem is the past’s own spooky determination to keep itself intact and resist doctoring. Here King is at his best, casting a pall of enigmatic and menacing tension over the entire story.

Author Stephen King. Pinguino Kolb photo, Creative Commons.

Another charm of this book is verisimilitude. When Jake Epping walks into the 1950s, one feels transported into that time, because of the host of small details the author dresses the set with—Musterole, “Fresh Up with 7Up,” Cities Service, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring. My first thought was how remarkable it is that one too young to have been there was able to capture all these details and many more; then I Googled King and learned that he was born in 1947. So he didn’t have to do much research—like me, he’s an old-timer who remembers all those things. 

I won’t divulge further details of plot and action, because you might want to read the book. My one wish would be that King had embedded all that material in a sparer narration. At 849 pages, this book is a bit of a slog. Had it been published earlier in King’s stellar career, a good, truculent editor might have made it twenty percent shorter, thereby improving its pace and increasing its dramatic power. 

Still, the time-travel is presented imaginatively, even brilliantly. It reminds me of the works of Jack Finney (whom I’ve mentioned here and here). Indeed, King himself pays homage to Finney at the very end of his “Afterword,” referring to Finney’s Time and Again as “the great time-travel story.” However, this one clearly is King’s book and not Finney’s. 

In sum, 11/22/63 is an interesting and provocative romp through past and present by a master storyteller.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Stop the presses! Mystery Object Revealed!!

Last week, I asked you to guess the identity of the object below:

Foote, Pierson & Co. “Twentieth Century” telegraph key, popularly known as a “Pump Handle Key,” Serial Number 197. ©Larry F. Sommers, 2012.

That’s right, it’s a telegraph key. 

“Why doesn’t it look like a telegraph key?” you ask. Maybe you think a telegraph key should look like this:

Telegraph key. Lou Sander, Public Domain.

Yes, indeed it should—and that’s the problem. 

Samuel F. B. Morse invented electric telegraphy in 1844. In the ensuing years, telegraph keys—those little gadgets telegraphers used to send messages in Morse code over wires before the telephone, teletype, and Internet were invented—were mostly of the type shown in Lou Sander’s image above. The devices required a repetitive up-and-down motion of the hand to send the dots and dashes that composed the message.

As this new technology spread rapidly around the globe, men and women were soon spending whole careers “pounding brass” eight hours a day, five or six days a week—employed by railroads, military organizations, and other operations that needed to transmit information quickly over long distances. By around 1900, manufacturers started producing telegraph keys with horizontal or lateral actions to combat “telegrapher’s paralysis,” a repetitive motion injury that today we call “carpal tunnel syndrome.” 

One answer to this challenge was J.H. Bunnell & Company’s Double Speed Key, introduced in 1904. This key, known as “the Sideswiper” for its horizontal action, looked very similar to a standard telegraph key, but the lever was mounted for sideways operation. It became a very popular item in Bunnell’s inventory.

Priority, however, goes to Foote, Pierson & Company with their “Twentieth Century Key,” also known as the “Pump Handle Key,” introduced at the very turn of the century, in 1900. The motion of this device was rotational: The operator swung the handle up and to the left to make contact. Professor Tom Perera of Montclair State University tells us this key was “Popular with Railroad operators.”

That’s probably the reason I happen to own the Twentieth Century Key shown in my teaser photo at the top of this post. It came down from my grandfather, William P. Sommers, who was a young railroad telegrapher and station agent in the early years of the twentieth century. The “pump handle” of this device today is quite stiff, but I suppose that’s a matter of congealed lubricants. Even assuming fresh lubricants and a smoothly operating handle, it’s hard to imagine Grandpa sending with any speed while using such a cumbersome wrist-twisting motion to send the signals. 

But the very nature of that wrist motion presumably spared the operator’s carpal tunnels and made the key “popular with railroad operators.”  Even so, I suppose by the time Grandpa left the employ of the railroad, his “Twentieth Century Key” was an obsolete relic, superseded by the sleek Bunnell “Sideswipers.” That is what allows me to think the railroad would have let him take the outmoded key with him as a souvenir of his railroad days. 

Grandpa was a fierce, truculent, and eccentric man. He was also a stickler for propriety. He would never have simply stolen railroad property.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author