Tag Archives: Autobiography & Memoir

Goodnight, Beloved Comrade

Murtaugh-Good-Night-Beloved-Comrade-c

This week, the University of Wisconsin Press publishes Good Night, Beloved Comrade: The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, edited by Daniel J. Murtaugh.  

Denton Welch

Denton Welch

Denton Welch (1915–48) died at the age of thirty-three after a brief but brilliant career as a writer and painter. He published four novels published between 1943 and 1950: Maiden Voyage, In Youth Is Pleasure, Brave and Cruel, and A Voice through Cloud, as well as a large body of short fiction and poetry.The revealing, poignant, impressionistic voice that buoys his novels was much praised by critics and literati in England and has since inspired creative artists from William S. Burroughs to John Waters. His achievements were all the more remarkable because he suffered from debilitating spinal and pelvic injuries incurred in a bicycle accident at age eighteen.

Though German bombs were ravaging Britain, Welch wrote in his published work about the idyllic landscapes and local people he observed in Kent. There, in 1943, he met and fell in love with Eric Oliver, a handsome, intelligent, but rather insecure “landboy”—an agricultural worker with the wartime Land Army. Oliver would become a companion, comrade, lover, and caretaker during the last six years of Welch’s life. All fifty-one letters that Welch wrote to Oliver are collected and annotated here for the first time.

Daniel Murtaugh, editor of Goodnight, Beloved Comrade, shares in the following post how he’s experienced a companionship that mirrors that of Welch and Oliver.

I made my first trip to Austin, Texas, during the summer of 1996 to locate and transcribe the correspondence of Denton Welch, partially funded by a small research stipend and a University of Kansas Endowment loan. The Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Te

The Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center

xas held Welch’s original holographic letters purchased in the 1960s from Eric Oliver, Welch’s companion. My book originated from the work I did during this visit.

As it happened, Ned, one of my closest friends from Lawrence, Kansas, had moved to Austin a couple of years prior and was working for a rare book and manuscript restoration business. Though I knew I would be spending most of my daytime hours in research, I made plans to get together with my friend during the evenings.

Martha Campbell in front of her bed and breakfast

Martha Campbell in front of her bed and breakfast

Ned picked me up at the Austin airport and took me to the bed and breakfast run by Martha Campbell in the Hyde Park area of Austin. Martha had lost her husband and had converted her home into a lovely and relaxing oasis for visiting scholars at the University of Texas. My digs were a series of light-filled rooms where I immediately felt at home.

Martha is a well-read and feisty Texas woman, much like her idols Governor Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, and we had many lively political and literary discussions during my time in her home.

Some of my most memorable moments at Ms. Campbell’s were those sitting on her porcgeckoh, after dark, reading or mentally rehearsing my findings from the Denton Welch Collection at the Ransom Center. I was quite used to the deafening droning of cicadas as evening fell, but not to geckos. I was amazed and delighted to see several of these tiny lizards clinging adhesively to the porch walls, then darting after any mosquitos or other insects coming into the danger zone. I half expected one of these creatures to leap onto my shoulders in hot pursuit of its nocturnal quarry, but it never happened.

Congress Street bats

Congress Street bats

While I am still within a darting tongue’s distance of the subject of insect control, I might mention that one evening—just at dusk—Ned and I went to the Congress Street bridge in downtown Austin, under which thousands of bats make their homes. As we sat on the bank of the Colorado River, we heard a deafening squeaking and whirring, preceding waves of bats winging and pirouetting their way down the river channel in search of mosquitos. It should come as no surprise that this natural phenomenon has become one of the “must-sees” for visitors to the city.

Barton Springs

Barton Springs

Ned and I spent a lot of time together, bicycling to Barton Springs (for relief from the intense south Texas heat), along the numerous bike paths on the banks of the Colorado, and finally climbing the cliffs above Lake Travis for an exhilarating view of the Texas hill country. On my last Saturday in Austin, we took a hike among some rocky outcroppings near the river. When I stopped for a rest, I  naively sat down cross-legged on the ground; it didn’t take long for me to realize that fire ants (which one is unlikely to encounter north of the Red River) were advancing in platoons up my legs, apparently intending to bivoufire antac somewhere inside my shorts. Before I could mount a counterattack, I learned to my chagrin—and to Ned’s amusement—the reason they were given the name “fire” ants.

Lake Travis

Lake Travis

In all the time we spent together in Austin, I hadn’t realized how like Ned was in appearance and nature to the writer whose letters I was reading and copying at the Ransom Center. Both wore round, wire-rim glasses, both had a mass of curly hair, and both were intensely attuned to the minutiae of the world around them. Many years later, I recognize that Denton Welch’s sometimes frustrating relationship with Eric Oliver—particularly related to their difficulties in the mutual expression of intimacy—in many ways mirrored my continuing friendship and love for Ned, which had begun in Lawrence several years prior to my trip. Among the things that Denton and Eric enjoyed most were their hikes and bicycling trips around the English countryside, the same types of things Ned and I cherished most during my visit to Austin and in my previous experiences with him.

Also, like Denton for Eric, I long ago realized that Ned is one of my soulmates, but also like the writer and his companion, our connection can never be fully and mutually shared; there are barriers. However, no one will ever share in the same way my sense of wonderment in and bewilderment by our world (including geckos, bats, and fire ants) better than Ned.

Daniel J. Murtaugh

Daniel J. Murtaugh

Daniel J. Murtaugh teaches literature and history at Park University and at Johnson County Community College. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Good Night, Beloved Comrade is published in the UWP books series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographiesedited by David Bergman, Joan Larkin, and Raphael Kadushin.

New publications, February 2017

Murtaugh-Good-Night-Beloved-Comrade-c

We are pleased to announce two new books to be published in February.

February 7, 2017
GOOD NIGHT, BELOVED COMRADE
The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver
Edited by Daniel J. Murtaugh

Denton Welch (1915–48) died at the age of thirty-three after a brief but brilliant career as a writer and painter. The revealing, poignant, impressionistic voice that buoys his novels was much praised by critics and literati in England and has since inspired creative artists from William S. Burroughs to John Waters. His achievements were all the more remarkable because he suffered from debilitating spinal and pelvic injuries incurred in a bicycle accident at age eighteen.

Though German bombs were ravaging Britain, Welch wrote in his published work about the idyllic landscapes and local people he observed in Kent. There, in 1943, he met and fell in love with Eric Oliver, a handsome, intelligent, but rather insecure “landboy”—an agricultural worker with the wartime Land Army. Oliver would become a companion, comrade, lover, and caretaker during the last six years of Welch’s life. All fifty-one letters that Welch wrote to Oliver are collected and annotated here for the first time. They offer a historical record of life amidst the hardship, deprivation, and fear of World War II and are a timeless testament of one young man’s tender and intimate emotions, his immense courage in adversity, and his continual struggle for love and creative existence.

Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies
David Bergman, Joan Larkin, and Raphael Kadushin, Series Editors

 

February 21
OF BEGGARS AND BUDDHASBowie-Of-Beggars-and-Buddhas-c
The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand
Katherine A. Bowie

An exploration of the subversive politics of humor in the most important story in Theravada Buddhism

The 547 Buddhist jatakas, or verse parables, recount the Buddha’s lives in previous incarnations. In his penultimate and most famous incarnation, he appears as the Prince Vessantara, perfecting the virtue of generosity by giving away all his possessions, his wife, and his children to the beggar Jujaka. Taking an anthropological approach to this two-thousand-year-old morality tale, Katherine A. Bowie highlights significant local variations in its interpretations and public performances across three regions of Thailand over 150 years.

The Vessantara Jataka has served both monastic and royal interests, encouraging parents to give their sons to religious orders and intimating that kings are future Buddhas. But, as Bowie shows, characterizations of the beggar Jujaka in various regions and eras have also brought ribald humor and sly antiroyalist themes to the story. Historically, these subversive performances appealed to popular audiences even as they worried the conservative Bangkok court. The monarchy sporadically sought to suppress the comedic recitations. As Thailand has changed from a feudal to a capitalist society, this famous story about giving away possessions is paradoxically being employed to promote tourism and wealth.

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, Thongchai Winichakul, I. G. Baird, Katherine Bowie, and Anne Ruth Hansen, Series Editors

 

 

 

Reading African American Autobiography

Lamore-Reading-African-American-Autobiography-2016-c

Eric Lamore, editor of Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism, spoke with us about why it’s necessary to study overlooked texts to gain deep insight into African American life narratives. His book is published today in the Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series. 

What influence do you think that President Obama has had upon readers and writers of African American autobiography?

In putting together this collection of eleven essays on African American autobiography, I was particularly interested in Robert B. Stepto’s claim that scholars of African American literature need to rethink this canon because the President of the United

1995 edition

1995 edition

States for the last eight years is himself an African American writer. In his book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama, Stepto compares relevant parts from Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, with foundational literary texts, some of which are autobiographies. I titled my introduction “African American Autobiography in the Age of Obama” to emphasize this connection.

2004 edition

2004 edition

This election season, I went back and reread Obama’s Dreams, and I was struck by the President’s comments on reading. He wrote in the preface to the 2004 edition of his memoir that he wanted to revise parts of his book, because he would have told his life story differently had he written it later in his life. But, he commented that his 1995 memoir would be read differently as republished in a post-911 world, so he was quite aware of the relationship between text, reader, and context. Part of Obama’s contribution to the study of African American life narratives in the twenty-first century is this important point about the need to reread older life narratives, because cultural and political landscapes continue to change in the United States and around the world. One could reread pertinent African American life narratives from the past, for example, in the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

I think Obama’s Dreams also laid an important textual foundation for African American life narrators in the twenty-first century. Though Dreams was first published in 1995, Obama’s explorations of the biracial self, and his search for people and places (including outside the United States) that impacted his constructions of self, are found in much of twenty-first-century African American life writing. The last four essays in Reading African American Autobiography explore these themes. There are striking parallels between Obama’s Dreams and twenty-first-century African American life writing that scholars need to explore further.

How might future scholarship build on the essays in this volume?

The contributors and I collectively make the case that reading these life narratives in the twenty-first century requires scholars to consider a wide array of texts and a host of critical approaches. We also directly address ways that innovative critical frameworks, such as ecocriticism or queer theory, allow scholars to reread seminal life stories from our past in new ways.

Some of the contributors reclaim overlooked texts and lives, including a criminal confession camera manpublished on a broadside in the late eighteenth century, an abridged edition of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography published for children and adolescent readers in nineteenth-century New York, an uplift narrative published after the Civil War that contains important photographs, and autobiographical graphic narratives published in the late twentieth century. The slave narratives published in the antebellum period still remain very important, of course, but my book makes the case that scholars need to spend more time analyzing other overlooked texts and lives. More work needs to be done to recover neglected aspects of African American lives and to dig into texts that have not received adequate critical attention.

FoxyWe also call for studying a wider range of genres. Scholars today can look at the presentation of self in blogs, YouTube posts, graphic narratives, films, and photography, to name just a few genres. The intersection of genealogy and genetics, too, has produced all kinds of new information on African American lives that we need to consider. The printed page is still important, but these other channels make it clear that African American life narrators are telling their stories and exploring the self in ways beyond the writing of a memoir. All these varied explorations have expanded the canon of African American life narrative in dramatic ways. There is no doubt that the field must and will become more interdisciplinary.

In the book, we also look at celebrity life writing in the twenty-first-century. Almost all examples of this in the African American life narrative canon are collaborative projects. It would be fruitful to study that process, especially if there is documentation (transcribed interviews, recordings, and the like) mapping how the celebrity and the collaborating writer worked together.

In the chapter that you contributed to this collection about Olaudah Equiano, you draw on the history of books and publishing to shed light on the complex textual histories of the African American autobiographical tradition. 

Yes, I’ve been influenced by scholarship on early black Atlantic literature and book history. I’veEquiano collage written here about Abigail Mott’s 1829 abridged edition of Equiano’s autobiography. Usually, Equiano is understood as one of the main individuals of African descent involved in the political movement against the slave trade in 1780s Great Britain. The point of my chapter is that there is a whole different story on Equiano if you look closely at the several different editions of his autobiography that were published in the United States, both during his lifetime and following his death. Mott’s 1829 edition, published thirty-two years after Equiano’s death, was aimed at students in the New York African Free School. It is the first edition of Equiano’s autobiography I know of that was edited specifically for young African American readers in the United States.

Mott’s abridged edition is a perfect example of what I referred to earlier as an overlooked text. By looking at more than one edition, we can discover that Equiano’s autobiography was edited and read in the United States differently from editions published in Great Britain. These differences tell us a great deal about how editors and book publishers packaged Equiano’s life in specific ways for their readers. Mott’s edition shows us one of the points where Equiano’s autobiography entered the African American canon (though he clearly viewed himself as an Afro-British subject). Studying abridged, unauthorized, and posthumous editions of early black Atlantic life writing reveals a great deal about the changing histories and contexts of works that shaped the beginnings of the African American life writing tradition.

Lamore-Eric-2016-cEric D. Lamore is an associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. He is the editor of Teaching Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative: Pedagogical Strategies and New Perspectives and coeditor of New Essays on Phillis Wheatley.

New books, December & January

5498-165w

We are pleased to announce these new and soon-to-be-published books.

Published December 6
Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts: Seeking Justice after Genocide
Bert Ingelaere
“This masterful study provides a balanced, nuanced assessment of Rwanda’s local courts, showing how diverse social dynamics influenced both the operations of gacaca and its outcomes in different local communities. Essential reading for anyone interested in transitional justice and conflict resolution, in Rwanda and beyond.”—Catharine Newbury, Smith College
Critical Human Rights   Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

 

To be published January 10Lamore-Reading-African-American-Autobiography-2016-c
Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism
Edited by Eric D. Lamore
“These provocative essays reveal the exciting state of African American autobiographical studies. The critical approaches explored here—from new-media studies and eco-criticism to reading the interplay between visual and verbal autobiographical acts—not only frame and interpret the life narratives proliferating within today’s digital and popular cultures, they enliven classic literary texts for a contemporary age.”—Angela Ards, author of Words of Witness
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography   William L. Andrews, Series Editor

5526-165wTo be published January 10
American Autobiography after 9/11

Megan Brown
“Demonstrates how several American life-writing subgenres have reflected and responded to national and personal anxieties after 9/11. This accessible and well-argued book is an essential resource for understanding contemporary memoir.”—G. Thomas Couser, Hofstra University
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography   William L. Andrews, Series Editor

 

To be published January 175415-165w
Understanding and Teaching the Cold War
Edited by Matthew Masur
“A superb collection of authoritative, imaginative, and even provocative essays on teaching the history of the Cold War, effectively merging historiography, methodology, and innovative use of primary documents.”—Jeremi Suri, author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century
The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History

John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors

5493-165wTo be published January 17
Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: 
How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway
Michael O’Hear
“Serious students of modern sentencing reforms—as well as everyone eager to understand the roots of, and potential responses to, modern mass incarceration—must have this book on their reading list. O’Hear thoroughly canvasses the dynamic story of Wisconsin’s uniquely important sentencing reform history.”—Douglas Berman, author of the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog

 

 

Following the Ghost of Thomas Hardy

Award-winning writer Floyd Skloot recounts the journey to England that inspired him to write his new novel The Phantom of Thomas Hardy, published by the University of Wisconsin Press this week. 

My wife Beverly and I didn’t travel to England in the spring of 2012 so that I could research a novel about Thomas Hardy. The idea that I would write a book-length work about Hardy never occurred to me, until I began to write a book-length work about Hardy nine months after we returned from our trip.

***

It had been hard to decide what to cram into our two weeks in England. We’d be there from May 22 through June 5. Beverly, who’d lived in the UK for four years in the early 1980s, wanted to see landscapes, gardens, and ancient sites. I wanted to pay homage to a few writers whose work and lives had mattered to me for the nearly fifty years I’d been writing. And we wanted to walk as much as possible, to get off the usual tourist track, explore. So after a couple of days in London we rented a car and confined our travels to southern England this time, vowing to return another time and head north.

Walks in the Cotswolds, on Bodmin Moor, and around Cornwall and Carmarthen Bay had all made the itinerary. Also, we planned to visit Hidcote Manor Gardens, the Welsh National Botanic Gardens and Dinefwr Castle, and Lanhydrock Garden in Cornwall. But Beverly sacrificed visits to the gardens of Barnsley House, the grounds of Blenheim Palace, and the Bronze Age Rollright stones. And I chose Dylan Thomas’ home at Laugharne and Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, sacrificing visits to the places where T.S. Eliot set his Four Quartets, the homes of the Dymock poets, and the Hay-on-Wye bookstores.

For me, finally seeing Hardy territory was the centerpiece. As a student at Franklin & Marshall College in the late 1960s, I’d written my undergraduate honors thesis on Hardy’s novels, brought to them by my mentor/employer/substitute father, Professor Robert Russell, who had died at age eighty-six just a few months before we began planning our trip. It felt important to me that I visit Hardy territory in the wake of  Russell’s death. Since I’d published an essay about Hardy in 2007, I didn’t anticipate writing about him again. In fact, I felt certain that visiting his places would mark the end of my long engagement with him.

We stayed at a B&B in Dorchester for two nights, which gave us parts of three days—June 3, 4, and 5—to look around, tour Hardy’s birthplace and the home called Max Gate that he built and lived in for the final forty-three years of his life, see his grave at Stinsford Churchyard, and walk some of the places he wrote about such as the Weymouth shoreline or Lulworth Cove.

Thorncombe Woods.1

Thorncombe Woods Photo Credit: Beverly Hallberg

Nothing unusual happened during our time in Dorset. We met no one connected with Hardy, spoke to no one about Hardy. It was moving to me to be there, and it did seem like a time of closure. Only once, in downtown Dorchester at the start of our Hardy wanderings, did I feel even the slightest sense of the writer’s presence, accompanied by a passing thought that it would have been sweet to somehow call Dr. Russell from where I stood at #10 South Street, beside the heavy wooden door of a Barclays Bank that bore a round blue plaque saying “This house is reputed to have been lived in by the MAYOR of CASTERBRIDGE in THOMAS HARDY’S story of that name written in 1885.”

***

In June and July, back home in Portland, I wrote an essay about our trip, “To Land’s End and Back: A 1,512-Mile Drive Around Southern England.” That essay included a mere three paragraphs about what we saw during our time in Dorset. It completed my book Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), and was – I believed – all I had to say about going to Hardy country.

ready to write Hardy.2

Photo Credit: Beverly Hallberg

But my thoughts kept returning to Dorset, to Hardy, and to Dr. Russell. I spoke about this with my daughter Rebecca, who reminded me to write notes about these thoughts and let them go wherever they might take me. She was surprised to learn that I no longer had a copy of my college thesis and encouraged me to see if I could track one down at Franklin & Marshall. In July I found myself drawn to rereading Hardy’s short second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, set in and around the author’s childhood home where we’d spent a couple of hours. Then I reread Claire Tomalin’s biography, Thomas Hardy, which I’d reviewed for the Boston Globe in 2007. My notebook was filling. By August I felt pretty sure that I did, after all, need to write something much longer than the three paragraphs in my earlier essay, but I wasn’t sure what form that writing would take. Then I reread Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited (2004) and Ralph Pite’s Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life (2006), both of which I’d first read as soon as they were published. I found and read several more biographies. My sense of Hardy as a person, a character, was deepening in ways I’d never considered before.

And I kept returning to the memory of when I was standing in front of the Barclay Bank building in Dorchester vaguely sensing Hardy’s presence and wishing I could call Dr. Russell. In March 2013, in a fresh notebook, I wrote, “Beverly and I walked up South Street in Dorchester, following a tourist map past Trespass Outdoor Clothing, Carphone Warehouse, Top Drawer Cards & Gifts, a shuttered O2 Store.”

And that was the beginning of the novel! While standing in front of that Barclays Bank building, pondering the enigma of a fictional character living in a factual building, my character Floyd is approached by the ghost of Hardy himself. Read more about the novel here.

Floyd Skloot is an award-winning writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His twenty books include Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir and The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, NATURE, LIFE WITH ALS, AND HIS NEW BOOK ‘TREEHAB’

Treehab book coverToday is the publication day of TREEHAB: TALES FROM MY NATURAL WILD LIFE by comedian and writer Bob Smith. Christopher Bram interviewed Bob Smith for the Lambda Literary Review, and we excerpt a portion of that interview here. Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview

BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, LIFE WITH ALS, HIS LOVE OF NATURE, AND HIS NEW BOOK TREEHAB

by Christopher Bram   September 20, 2016  Lambda Literary Review

In the wider world of pop culture, Bob Smith is known as a stand-up comic. He was the first openly gay stand-up to appear on the Tonight Show. This was followed by many other appearances, including a special on HBO. He toured the country for several years in the groundbreaking comedy trio Funny Gay Males, performing with his buddies Jaffe Cohen and Danny McWilliams. His smart, wry, low-key comedy monologues, which you can see on YouTube, are unique in tone and full of memorable lines. Years before I met him, I often quoted (with attribution) such Smith bits as: “My high school had a Head Start program for homosexuals. It was called Drama Club.”

But in the smaller world of book readers, Smith is known as a writer. And he’s a wonderful writer. This should be no surprise. Good writing is full of the same attention to detail, originality, and surprise that powers the best stand-up comedy.

Smith’s newest book, Treehab: Tales from My Natural Wild Life, is another collection of essays but with a wider, richer range than his first books. It’s a glorious achievement, one that has already earned high praise from Kirkus, Stephen McCauley and Armistead Maupin. This is The Portable Bob Smith. There’s a lot of Smith to carry, but the book carries it with ease. We hear about his love of nature, of rocks and minerals, and Alaska. He tells stories of his career as a stand-up, as well as what it’s like to be the sperm-donor dad of two children. He talks about his dog Bozzie and his four best friends, the men he calls his “Nature Boys,” which includes his life partner Michael Zam. And he discusses his experience with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neuro-degenerative disease that affects the motor neurons. It can work quickly or slowly. Stephen Hawking has lived with it for years. Luckily for Bob its progress has been slow. He was diagnosed with ALS twelve years ago and has been able to keep working. The first thing he lost was his ability to speak. In the early stages he assured his stand-up audiences that his slurred speech didn’t mean he was drunk, only that he had a neurological disorder. When Bob could no longer perform, he concentrated on his writing.

I recently spoke with Bob about his new book. He’s temporarily lost the use of his hands and can no longer type. He now spells out words with his feet, pointing at letters on a Lucite board. But Bob expresses himself better with his feet than most people do with a fully functioning set of fingers. Also present was Bob’s best friend, Eddie Sarfaty, a brilliant stand-up comic and fine writer in his own right, author of Mental: Funny in the Head. Eddie is now working on his own novel.

Eddie knows Bob well enough that he can often finish his answers once Bob begins them, but not always. We sometimes put words into Bob’s mouth in what follows, but he always agreed with what we attributed to him.

Do you have a favorite essay [in the book]?

Bob Smith

Bob Smith

“Nature Boys.”

Eddie: Because boys and nature are his two favorite things.

It’s a wonderful portrait of your best friends, four gay men who are bound together by their love of wildlife and the great outdoors. You are full of love, Bob. You love so many things: birds, books, friends, your partner Michael, your two children, Maddie and Xander, Alaska, of course, and Henry David Thoreau. But you also have the healthy gift of anger. Who are some of the people and things that make you furious?

The Koch Brothers. Donald Trump. Climate change deniers. People who don’t believe in evolution. The Koch Brothers. (Again!) Soy milk. The NRA. Unfunny comedians.

Do you want to name a few unfunny comics?

(He smiles and shakes his head.)

Who are your heroes?

Thoreau. Mary Leakey. Verner Wilson [a Yupik storyteller and environmental activist from Alaska]. Lily Tomlin. W. C. Fields. Maude Lechner [the daughter of friends, who shaved her head to raise money for ALS when she was eleven].

Who are your favorite writers? You’re the man who turned me on to P. G. Wodehouse, for which I am eternally grateful. Who else do you love?

Evelyn Waugh. Dawn Powell. Charles Dickens. Stephen McCauley. Armistead Maupin. Jane Austen. Ronald Firbank. Tolkien.

That’s right. You’ve been a huge fan of Lord of the Rings from an early age.

(Bob nods eagerly.)

You have not been able to talk for five years now, but you can still type. Did this make writing harder for you?

No. Good writing is always difficult.

Did your words become more concentrated when you couldn’t say them aloud but had to save them for the written page?

Yes. I think my writing became better.

I think so too.

Eddie: I agree.

This is a stupid question, but how badly do you miss the laughter of a stand-up comedy audience? Is there an equivalent for a book writer?

(Bob sadly shakes his head.)

Eddie: But you get letters from your readers. Often for books years after you wrote them.

But it’s too bad I can’t do stand-up anymore. Because ALS is hilarious.

******************

Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview.

 

Lithium Jesus: Charles Monroe-Kane’s memoir of mania

Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania is published today. It is perhaps not surprising that Charles Monroe-Kane, who has heard voices in his head since childhood, should find a career as an award-winning public radio producer and host. Here he talks with us about his life. He’s also chosen links to radio pieces that expand on this story.
Why did you write this memoir? I’d struggled all my life with mental illness—extreme mania, hearing voices—and it got misunderstood in many different ways. It got me in a lot of trouble, actually. And surprisingly, about five years ago, in my 40s, it got really bad. The voices were changing, and I was actually scared. I went to a therapist to talk about it and my therapist was like, “I can help you, but you need to slow down! Write this stuff down!” So I did.
And really, on a deeper level, I wrote the book because I was trying to figure out who the hell I am. Why did I take lithium, and why did I quit taking it and then start taking it again? And what were these voices, anyway? Was it mania? Brain chemistry awry? Angels? A gift? Was I just crazy? I never really thought this book could get published. I just wanted to tell the truth to myself so I could figure it all out.
 
Can you tell us about your book title, Lithium Jesus? Well, the lithium part is about the drugs. As for Jesus, I grew up in a rough-and-tumble steel mill town, and I was a very manic kid who was pretty out of control and hearing voices, which, of course, I didn’t tell anyone about. One day at an Evangelical/Pentecostal summer camp, I heard people speaking in tongues for the first time. It sounded, structurally, very similar to the voices in my head. That didn’t scare me; I actually found it comforting. I ended up becoming a born-again evangelical Christian because I felt a kindred spirit with those people. And once I got the guts, I also spoke out loud the voices that I’d been hearing for years. That led some people to think I was anointed by God, and when you’re 14, 15, 16 years old, and grownups see you that way, that’s one hell of an ego boost. It was also a good feeling to think that God was speaking through me. I thought the voices in my head were angels. It was beautiful at the time!
Later you made a huge leap from being a clean-cut Christian to a lifestyle that included lots of mind-bending drugs. Why? I think the reason was twofold. One, when I left the church and God, I was pretty lost. You can imagine, your whole life is wrapped up in Jesus, and when that’s gone but you still have these voices leftover . . . that was very difficult for me.
Second, I wanted to rebel. In high school I didn’t drink, smoke, or have sex. But I wanted to do those things! Of course, my introduction wasn’t beer: it was psychedelics. And that’s not surprising, really. I went from having charismatic experiences in church to taking psychedelics because it was familiar. I liked it. I wasn’t afraid of it. And I did a lot of it. Before it turned into abuse, it was a way for me to be both transcendent and an atheist. I still sincerely believe drugs are a way to do that. I just don’t think you should do lots and lots of them without a guide or some help.
This is your story, but you’re not always a hero in it. I think many people make themselves the goat of their own story because they’re embarrassed about their own past. It’s one or the other, right? We either exaggerate to belittle ourselves or to make ourselves great. If we were all a bit more honest, we’d find out we’re all both sinners and saints.
With this book, I said to myself, “I’m not going to judge the church. I’m not going to judge the people I did drugs with. I’m not going to judge anybody, including myself.” Because who wants to read that? Look, salvation is the journey, not the destination. So let’s quit denying how we got to the place we are at and just chill the fuck out. And keep on down the path, you know?
You’re a public radio producer. Did that influence the way you tell your life story in this book? Yeah, when I was staring at the blank screen, trying to “just write,” I didn’t even know where to start. But I knew I had about seventeen core stories I wanted to tell, stories that I’d told many times before. So I decided to treat the whole thing as a radio producer would.
Here in Madison, I usually go drinking on Thursday nights with my buddies at our local bar. I decided to start bringing my recorder to the bar, and I’d record myself telling these stories. Then I would go home and transcribe and edit them, and I’d put them in chronological order and add some connective tissue to make them work. A few more intimate pieces I recorded alone. So the whole thing’s very oral, because that’s what I know how to do. But I would advise other people to try this. You think you can’t write a book, but I bet you can talk! Then see what you get.
 [Listen to a radio interview with Charles Monroe-Kane about hearing voices, and talking to God, on the To the Best of Our Knowledge radio program.]
 Charles Monroe-Kane has won a Peabody Award for his work as a senior producer and interviewer for the program To the Best of Our Knowledge, broadcast on 220 public radio stations. He has reported for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

When Kids Don’t Fit in a Pink or Blue Gender Box

My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press. We talked with author Julie Tarney about some of her experiences raising a gender diverse child, why she wrote her memoir, and what she hopes other parents can learn from her story.

Tell us a little bit about yourself before we delve into the topics in the book. I’m a mom. I live in Brooklyn, New York. And I think I’m in a unique position. My child Harry is 26 years old now and a part of the LGBTQ community. I started this journey when he was two years old, when he told me, “Inside my head I’m a girl.” I know there are thousands of parents out there who are just beginning this journey now—right now—learning about and struggling with their child’s gender identity. I wrote this book as much to help change that experience for kids and the parents who worry about them, as to tell my own story.

What is the book about? It’s about my journey raising a gender diverse child—or gender-HJ & Me Yellow Chair 1991nonconforming, gender creative, gender expansive, gender fluid, whatever term you want to use—beginning in the early ’90s. And it’s what I learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression, and self-acceptance. It’s about how I grew as a parent and a person.

What did you learn from your son? I learned so much from Harry. Most important, that it’s never too late to learn! And it’s never too late to learn as much from your child as much as you learn for your child. I have lived that experience all the way through with Harry, from toddler to adulthood. And the way I learned, in many respects, was to unlearn. It’s never too late to learn or unlearn. As for specifics, I learned that gender identity is something that develops over time. I didn’t really even understand the term gender identity until Harry was in college and I heard him use it. Gender to me used to mean one of two boxes you checked on a driver’s license application. But I know now that I was confusing sex and gender to mean the same thing, which I think a lot of people still do.

How did the book come about? I was talking at dinner one night with a friend who’s a PhD in psychology and working with LGBTQ youth in Chicago. I told him how Harry had shared his gender identity with me at such an early age and some other stories about Harry’s love of Barbie, the color pink, and so-called girl clothes. That friend encouraged me to share my story. He said he thought it could help a lot of people who were experiencing the same thing now, and that I could help kids by helping parents put things in perspective. I hope it reaches a lot of people.

Transgender youth in particular are getting a lot of attention lately. What do you hope the book will do given the elevated conversation about gender identity, transgender children, and youth? I’m hopeful that it’s going to help parents understand that they’re not alone, that other people have experienced the same thing. AHJ & Me -- Tongue Outnd to help them understand what gender identity is, how we all discover ourselves, and that discovering our gender selves is part of that. My journey with Harry began at a time when there were few resources, no Internet, little knowledge, and a lot of misinformation and stereotyping. People were up against a lot then. And today there’s community, support, resources, expertise, research. I want my book to add to the growing expanse of information available today.

What did you discover about yourself, both in raising your child and as you wrote this memoir? I discovered the good and the bad. I discovered that I have a tremendous amount of love for my child. I knew I wanted him to feel that love. I wanted him to feel safe and secure, have confidence, and feel comfortable in the world. I also learned what a big worrier I was. There was so much I didn’t know, and that made me fearful. I found myself facing double standards of boy-girl stereotyping. I considered myself a very liberal, progressive person, but I found myself with the pink problem, something I had to unlearn. And I realized I cared too much during Harry’s early years about what other people thought. In the end I discovered that letting Harry just be Harry —giving him the freedom to be his true self—was what I’d always wanted for myself, too.

HJ & Me NYE Madison 12-31-99Are there any favorite stories in the book that you want to share? I have so many favorite stories. Harry, who today also lives in Brooklyn, is a creative director, photographer and videographer. He also performs as drag artist Amber Alert. So he’s an entertainer, and that began at a very young age. I remember taking him with me to a department store after I’d picked him up from preschool. I needed to buy some black tights to wear to a client presentation the next morning. He wanted to walk around, and I told him to stay close by. He was four. As I flipped through packages, I felt a tap at the back of my waist. When I turned around, there was Harry in a short gray wig. And in his best imitation of an elderly woman, he said, “Grandma wants to go to the park today.” I cracked up, and then he just ran off. I half-expected to be reprimanded by a sales clerk for not keeping my child in check. A few minutes later he came back with another wig and a different voice.

Can you say more about the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation? I didn’t understand the difference until Harry was grown. Gender identity is about you, who you know yourself to be in your own mind. Sexual orientation is what’s in your heart; whom you fall in love with. They run on a parallel, but they are separate paths. Harry identifies as queer. Some people are unfamiliar with that term, or think of it as a term of the past that was used as a slur and had a very derogatory meaning. But for today’s young people, it’s an all-encompassing identifier that really is a way to say, “Don’t try to put me in a box or give me a label to define me in your terms.” It speaks to the idea that I know who I am. I might be genderqueer, I might be gender fluid, I might be agender, but don’t you tell me who I am.

What would you say to a parent whose 3- or 4-year-old child is telling them they’re a girl on the inside or a boy on the inside? Or expressing themselves in ways outside gender expectations? I would tell that parent to love and support their child with all their heart. I would say listen to your child, and keep listening. Your child will tell you who they are. Learn as much as you possibly can. And seek out support. PFLAG is a wonderful nonprofit parenting support organization with hundreds of local chapters across the country.

HJ&Me_BetweenTheShades_Mar2016Your memoir focuses on your experience as a mom, but what are some of the concerns of dads?  When I was worrying and projecting a horrible future for Harry, it was Harry’s dad, Ken, who was calmer and said, “He’s only two. He’s just a kid.” But as Harry grew older, I knew his dad wanted to protect him, too. Ken worried that maybe he wasn’t being a “guy enough” as a dad. He thought that maybe because Harry identified more with toys and activities that were/are considered to be feminine, or stereotyped as feminine, that maybe he was being an inadequate father in some way. But I think, at the end of the day, you look at your kid, and you realize this is a little person. You have to listen to them and understand that they’re not here to live up to your expectations of them. They’re here to be who they are. Ideally as parents you default to unconditional love. You ask yourself, “Do I love this kid enough to let them be who they are?” I hope that the questioning and self-doubts I share in the book will encourage other parents to learn more and seek support.

Julie Tarney is now a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for the Huffington Post’s “Queer Voices” pages, and is a contributing writer for TheParentsProject.com and the True Colors Fund’s Give a Damn Campaign. She volunteers for the PFLAG Safe Schools Program. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, she now lives in New York City. Visit her own blog here.

Early reviews for My Son Wears Heels:

“Tarney does an exceptional job of tracing the zigzagging line of Harry’s self-identity and recalling the inevitable questions asked along the way.”New York Times Book Review

“A memorable account of one young person’s journey toward self-identity and a valuable parenting guide for a new era of gender awareness and acceptance.”Foreword Reviews

“Not only does the book chronicle an especially memorable mother-son relationship, it also suggests that the best parenting is the kind that does not forcibly mold a child into what he/she ‘should’ be but lovingly allows him/her the freedom to follow his/her own special path. A fearlessly open and frank memoir.”Kirkus Reviews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Books For September 2016

We are pleased to announce these three new books arriving in September.

My Son Wears Heels book cover

Publication date: September 6
MY SON WEARS HEELS
One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass
Julie Tarney

“A memorable account of one young person’s journey toward self-identity and a valuable parenting guide for a new era of gender awareness and acceptance.”Foreword

Julie Tarney

Julie Tarney


“Not only does the book chronicle an especially memorable mother-son relationship, it also suggests that the best parenting is the kind that does not forcibly mold a child into what he/she ‘should’ be but lovingly allows him/her the freedom to follow his/her own special path. A fearlessly open and frank memoir.”Kirkus Reviews

 

Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania book cover

Publication date: September 13
LITHIUM JESUS
A Memoir of Mania

Charles Monroe-Kane

As featured on This American Life

Charles Monroe-Kane

Charles Monroe-Kane

“A young man grapples with bipolar ‘voices’ via religion, hedonism, activism, and Lithium. In his debut, Monroe-Kane, a Peabody Award–winning public radio producer, brings a fresh perspective to familiar memoir territory. . . . [A] compelling account of wrestling with inner turmoil against gritty, dramatic international settings.”Kirkus Reviews

“This humble, funny, raw (yes, sex) book is a pell-mell kaleidoscope of faith, drugs, bawdy behavior, and mental illness that resolves not in soft focus or shattered glass but in the sweet important idea that there are many ways to be born again.”—Michael Perry, author of The Jesus Cow

 

Treehab book coverPublication date: September 27
TREEHAB
Tales from My Natural, Wild Life
Bob Smith

“Smith, a successful comedian and author of both nonfiction and fiction, has lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease [ALS], and even though he now communicates through his iPad, his wit is as sharp as ever. . . . Never moving too far from his comedic nature, Smith delivers one-liners throughout, and nothing is off-limits. A truth-telling tour conducted by an agile guide.”Kirkus Reviews

Bob Smith

Bob Smith

“To say that Bob Smith can make a hilarious one-liner out of everything from imminent ecological catastrophe to his own struggles with ALS is to emphasize only one aspect of the beautiful and devastating Treehab. This is a profound meditation on the fragility of life and the enduring power of tolerance, love, and the many ways of creating families. A smart, funny, inspiring guide.”—Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection

UW Press & John Muir: A long walk together

80th-logo

The National Park Service is 100 this year, and the University of Wisconsin Press is 80. John Muir has had a significant influence on both!

A son of Wisconsin pioneers, University of Wisconsin student, inventor, naturalist, and prolific writer—John Muir is one of the most fascinating figures in American history and the nation’s most celebrated advocate for land preservation and national parks. Muir’s writings convinced the U.S. government to create the first national parks at Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Rainier. An NPS biographical note states, “Muir’s great contribution to wilderness preservation was to successfully promote the idea that wilderness had spiritual as well as economic value. This revolutionary idea was possible only because Muir was able to publish everything he wrote in the . . . principal monthly magazines read by the American middle class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

The Story of My Boyhood

UW Press editions of Muir’s “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth”

The University of Wisconsin Press has been publishing books by and about John Muir for at least 50 Muirsc1years. In 1965, we reissued Muir’s autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. (It was first published before he died in 1914.) Muir recounts in vivid detail his early life: his first eleven years in Scotland; the years 1849–1860 in the central Wisconsin wilderness; and two-and-a-half inventive years in Madison as a student at the recently established University of Wisconsin.

We have also published four different biographies of John Muir.  Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir by Linnie Marsh Wolfe won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for biography. UWP obtained rights to it, issuing an edition in 1978 and an expanded edition in 2003. Based in large part on personal interviews with people who knew Muir, it follows Muir his life from Scotland through his teens in rural Marquette Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John MuirCounty, Wisconsin, to his history-making pilgrimage to California.

The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wildernessby scholar Michael P. Cohen, tracks the change in Muir’s aims from personal enlightenment to public advocacy, as he promoted the ecological education of the Pathless WayAmerican public, governmental protection of natural resources, the establishment of the National Parks, and the encouragement of tourism.

The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy by Stephen Fox is both a biography—the first to make unrestricted use of all of Muir’s manuscripts and personal papers—and a history of a century of environmental activism. Fox traces the conservation movement from Muir’s successful campaign to establish Yosemite National Park in 1890 to the 1980s concerns of nuclear waste and acid rain.

The American Conservation Movement

The Young John Muir

The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography by Steven J. Holmes, published in 1999, offered a dramatically new interpretation of Muir’s formative years. Holmes uses rich archival material to show how the natural world confronted the young Muir with practical, emotional, and religious conflicts. Only with the help of his family, his religion, and the extraordinary power of nature itself could Muir in his late twenties find a welcoming vision of nature as home—a vision that would shape his lifelong environmental experience, most immediately in his transformative travels through the South and to the Yosemite Valley.

In the 1970s through the 1990s, UWP was very active in publishing both new collections and reissues of Muir’s writings about his wilderness travels. Some of these are now out of print, but his impassioned work of promotion, Our National Parks, remains a steady seller. Originally published in 1901, its goals were to entice people to visit the newly established parks and to Our National Parksencourage public support for conservation. The book treats Yellowstone, Sequoia, General Grant, and other national parks of the Western U.S., but especially Yosemite.

Articles that Muir wrote for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin in 1874 and 1875 comprise John Muir Summering in the Sierra, edited by Robert E. Engberg. In the course of the articles,  Muir grows from a student of the wilderness to its professor and protector.Yosemite, Alaska

John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, first published by Knopf in 1938, was reissued by UWP in 1979. John Muir: To Yosemite and Beyond, collected writings from the period 1863 to 1875, was published in 1980. Muir’s book The Yosemite was reissued in 1987, and Letters from Alaska appeared in 1993. All are now out of print with UWP.
Walking With Muir across Yosemite

In 1998, UWP published Tom and Geraldine Vale’s retracing of Muir’s steps, Walking with Muir across Yosemite, based upon Muir’s journals from his first summer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From the foothills through Yosemite Valley and up to the Tuolumne Meadows, the Vales follow the present roads and trails that crossed Muir’s route, imagining his reaction to the landscape while reflecting on the natural world in both his time and our own.

We look forward to publishing a selection of Muir’s writing in A Driftless Area Reader edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley, forthcoming sometime in 2017.

Subscribe to our blog (at right) to read more UWP history throughout the coming year.

Read past 80th anniversary blog posts here.