Tag Archives: fiction

AIDS Readings

December 1 is World AIDS Day. HIV/AIDS has wrought enormous suffering worldwide and caused more than 35 million deaths. The nine books that follow are testimony to that devastation.

Anne-christine d’Adesky
A personal history of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris by a pioneering American AIDS journalist, lesbian activist, and daughter of French-Haitian elites. Anne-christine d’Adesky remembers “the poxed generation” of AIDS—their lives, their battles, and their determination to find love and make art in the heartbreaking years before lifesaving protease drugs arrived.
“Never far from the mad joy of writing, loving, and being alive, even as it investigates our horribly mundane capacity for horror, this book is a masterpiece.” —Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave
Kenny Fries
Kenny Fries embarks on a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, a society historically hostile to difference. When he is diagnosed as HIV positive, all his assumptions about Japan, the body, and mortality are shaken, and he must find a way to reenter life on new terms.
“Fries writes out of the pure hot emergency of a mortal being trying to keep himself alive. So much is at stake here—health, affection, culture, trauma, language—but its greatest surprise is what thrives in the midst of suffering. A beautiful book.”—Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door
David Caron
The deluge of metaphors triggered in 1981 in France by the first public reports of what would turn out to be the AIDS epidemic spread with far greater speed and efficiency than the virus itself.
“Literary and cultural analysis come together here as Caron casts brilliant light on the disastrously inadequate public response to the AIDS pandemic in France. . . . He shows how literature supplied the communitarian voice that would otherwise have been lacking.”—Ross Chambers, author of Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author
David Gere
“Anyone interested in dance or in gay culture or in art and politics should, as I did, find this a fascinating book, impossible to put down.”—Sally Banes, editor of Reinventing Dance in the 1960s
Edited by Edmund White
In Cooperation with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS
“A poignant reminder of the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on the arts.”—Library Journal
“A searing, and often bitingly funny collection of personal essays by almost two dozen writers—John Berendt, Brad Gooch, Allan Gurganus, and Sarah Schulman among them—Loss within Loss remembers over twenty creative artists lost to AIDS.”— The Advocate
Severino J. Albuquerque
Co-winner of the 2004 Roberto Reis BRASA Book Award
 “Albuquerque’s work . . . provides an archaeology of theatrical representations of homosexuality in Brazil, an alternative history of Brazilian theater from the margins, a critical analysis of canonical and non-canonical plays infused with the insights of feminist and queer theory, as well as a history of the representation of AIDS in Brazilian culture.”—Fernando Arenas, University of Minnesota
Michael Schiavi
The biography of gay-rights giant Vito Russo, the man who wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, commonly regarded as the foundational text of gay and lesbian film studies. A founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and cofounder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo lived at the center of the most important gay cultural turning points in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
G. Thomas Couser    Foreword by Nancy Mairs
A provocative look at writing by and about people with illness or disability—in particular HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, deafness, and paralysis—who challenge the stigmas attached to their conditions by telling their lives in their own ways and on their own terms.
Lesléa Newman
“Although pain plays a part in this volume, many of the tales celebrate with warmth and good humor the courageous maintenance of the Jewish tradition in radical relationships. . . . Contemporary characters confront both timely issues, like AIDS, and eternal ones, such as a lovers’ quarrel or a mother-daughter misunderstanding.”—Publishers Weekly

Vietnam, Laos, and the American War: A Reading List

 

Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War 
Edited by John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin

The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History
John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors

Honorable Mention, Franklin Buchanan Prize for Curricular Materials, Association for Asian Studies and the Committee for Teaching About Asia

“Delivers useful material for anyone teaching the Vietnam war, and for Vietnam veterans and others interest in how the war is being taught in high schools and colleges.”—Vietnam Veterans of America

 

Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air WarSecond Edition
Edited by Fred Branfman with essays and drawings by Laotian villagers
Foreword by Alfred W. McCoy

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

During the Vietnam War the United States government waged a massive, secret air war in neighboring Laos. Fred Branfman, an educational advisor living in Laos at the time, interviewed over 1,000 Laotian survivors. Shocked by what he heard and saw, he urged them to record their experiences in essays, poems, and pictures. Voices from the Plain of Jars was the result of that effort.

“A classic. . . . No American should be able to read [this book] without weeping at his country’s arrogance.”
—Anthony Lewis, New York Times

 

Vietnam Anthology: American War Literature
Edited by Nancy Anisfield

This anthology includes some of the most memorable personal narratives, short stories, novel excerpts, drama, and poetry to come out of the Vietnam War. Study questions at the end of each section, plus a time line, glossary, and bibliography make this an indispensable coursebook.

Novel excerpts include: Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, David Halberstam’s One Very Hot Day, and Jeff Danziger’s Lieutenant Kitt. Short stories include Asa Baber’s “The Ambush,” Tobias Wolff’s “Wingfield,” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Drama excerpts include David Rabe’s Streamers and Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July. Poets include: Denise Levertov, Jan Barry, E. D. Ehrhart, Basil T. Paquet, Stephen Sossaman, Bryan Alec Floyd, Bruce Weigl, and Trang Thi Nga.

Originally published by the Popular Press and distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.

 

Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina, 1850–1960
Mai Na M. Lee

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, and Thongchai Winichakul, Series Editors

“The messianism of the Hmong rebellions, the fractiousness of the Hmong clans, and the opportunism of Hmong relations with other forces mystified colonial powers and have puzzled historians. . . . But Lee, herself a member of the Hmong diaspora, makes sense of these behaviors as she deciphers the community’s myths, symbols, lineage ties, sexual politics, and rituals, with the combined skills of a historian and an anthropologist.”—Foreign Affairs

 

Viêt Nam: Borderless Histories
Edited by Nhung Tuyet Tran and Anthony Reid

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

“Vitally important not only for Vietnamese studies, but also for broader efforts in Southeast Asian studies to recover the pluralities and fluidities of the past. This volume makes a convincing case for the emergence of a real generational and analytical shift in the field.”–Mark Philip Bradley, Northwestern University

 

With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics
Dale Van Atta
Foreword by President Gerald R. Ford

In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, centrist Congressman Melvin Laird (R-WI) agreed to serve as Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense. It was not, Laird knew, a move likely to endear him to the American public—but as he later said, “Nixon couldn’t find anybody else who wanted the damn job.” The first book ever to focus on Laird’s legacy, this biography reveals his central and often unrecognized role in managing the crisis of national identity sparked by the Vietnam War—and the challenges, ethical and political, that confronted him along the way. Drawing on exclusive interviews with Laird, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and numerous others, author Dale Van Atta offers a sympathetic portrait of a man striving for open government in an atmosphere fraught with secrecy.

 

The Government of Mistrust: Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam
Ken MacLean

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

“An ambitious text, both for its creative use of mixed methodologies and its temporal thematic and range. . . . The richly descriptive text will be of value for graduate students and other scholars who are interested in the dynamic power relations that infuse the innovation and accumulation of state bureaucratic processes, as well as for Vietnam specialists interested in the history of Vietnamese governance, agricultural collectivization and economic policy since independence.”—Pacific Times

 

Hmong in America: Journey from a Secret War
Tim Pfaff

Hmong in America tells the dramatic story of one of America’s newest groups of immigrants, the Hmong, told through the voices of the people who lived this contemporary history. Their journey begins in the scenic, rugged highlands of Laos, travels through the Vietnam War, pauses in the over-crowded refugee camps of Thailand, and ends with the challenges of resettlement and a new life in America.   Distributed for the Chippewa Valley Museum

 

The Mekong Delta: Ecology, Economy, and Revolution, 1860–1960
Pierre Brocheux

By draining the swamps and encouraging a particular pattern of Vietnamese settlement, the French cultivated a volatile society, bound together by lines of credit and poised at the brink of social revolution. From the cutting of the first canals in the 1880s to the eruption of the Viet Cong’s insurgency in the 1950s, this book illuminates the subtle interactions between ecology and social change in a tropical delta.

“A major contribution to Vietnamese studies and to the socio-economic history of Southeast Asia.”—Hy V. Luong, Pacific Affairs

 

 

Into New Territory: American Historians and the Concept of US Imperialism
James G. Morgan

As the Vietnam War created a critical flashpoint, bringing the idea of American imperialism into the US mainstream, radical students of the New Left turned toward Marxist critiques, admiring revolutionaries like Che Guevara. Simultaneously, a small school of revisionist scholars, led by historian William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin, put forward a progressive, nuanced critique of American empire grounded in psychology, economics, and broader historical context. It is this more sophisticated strand of thinking, Morgan argues, which demonstrated that empire can be an effective analytical framework for studying US foreign policy, thus convincing American scholars to engage with the subject seriously for the first time.

 

 

Search and Clear: Critical Responses to Selected Literature and Films of the Vietnam War
Edited by William J. Searle

Demonstrates that the seeds of war were implicit in American culture, distinguishes between literature spawned by Vietnam and that of other conflicts, reviews the literary merits of works both well and little known, and explores the assumptions behind and the persistence of stereotypes associated with the consequences of the Vietnam War. It examines the role of women in fiction, the importance of gender in Vietnam representation, and the mythic patterns in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Essayists sharply scrutinize American values, conduct, and conscience as they are revealed in the craft of Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, Stephen Wright, David Rabe, Bruce Weigl, and others.

Originally published by the Popular Press, now distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.

 

 

 

The Driftless Reader: a literature of place

Today, we publish THE DRIFTLESS READER, a remarkable anthology of writings about the ancient and unique unglaciated region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. More than eighty excerpts from Native people, explorers, scientists, historians, farmers, songwriters, journalists, novelists, and poets, augmented by paintings, photographs, maps, and pictographs, comprise the anthology. In this post Keefe Keeley, coeditor of the volume, writes about the challenges and rewards of creating the Reader.

It never ceases to amaze me that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea. When I see the exposed bluff faces and roadside cuts stratified in layers like haphazard stacks of books, I almost can’t believe that sandstone and limestone is formed of ancient beaches and shells of sea creatures. Lower layers, older oceans, hundreds of millions of years old . . .

Assembling The Driftless Reader didn’t take hundreds of millions of years, but it took a few.  And geology was just the first chapter. Co-editor Curt Meine and I had our stacks of books and papers about Driftless plants and animals, waterways, early humans who hunted mastodons here, the mounds built by their descendants some ten thousand years later, and the sweep of history from fur trading to organic farming, all the way to a fly fisherman musing about the future of the Driftless area.

The publisher told us we had to fit it all in a hundred thousand words.  So we axed Steinbeck.  We abridged Leopold.  We groaned over Twain.  We scoured our bluffs of books, and we gave thanks for poets as we struck gold in the rich thrift of Driftless verse.

Giving fair representation across the roughly 10,000 square miles of the region was another important, if quixotic, goal. In seeking material for the volume, Curt and I crisscrossed the region to meet with friends and colleagues from Winona to Dubuque, Decorah to Baraboo, and a host of points therein. This was one of the most enjoyable phases of the book: broadening our familiarity with the region and making connections with authors, poets, artists, scientists, musicians and others interested in vital expression of our shared landscape and interwoven communities.  I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these places, and new ones, on our tour of events, as we bookend the project by sharing it with others interested in giving voice to our emerging bioregional identity.

Black Hawk. Painting by George Catlin.

Although we searched far and wide, perhaps it is no surprise that Crawford County, Wisconsin, where I grew up, gave rise to some of the most personally meaningful voices of the volume. Chief Black Hawk recounts old men and little children perishing of hunger as his band was pursued through this “rugged country,” the rest of them marching on to what became known as the Bad Axe Massacre. Pearl Swiggum shared her love for living a whole life on Stump Ridge. Ben Logan grew up on a farm, went on to travel the world, returned via remembrances, and eventually came home. Laura Sherry wrote of her memories in Old Prairie du Chien, a book of poetry published in Paris in 1931. Clifford Simak left for a life elsewhere, but his award-winning stories depict alien travelers from other worlds navigating the place he first called home.  And John Muir (although technically the letter we include in the Reader is one he wrote to a friend in Crawford County) described exploring bluffs just across the Mississippi River in Clayton County, Iowa, where my mother grew up.

I wasn’t always so enamored with this place. In my teenage years I thought of the Driftless largely in terms of escape. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. I would say . . . I liked it. But I felt the hillsides hemmed in my ambitions, and sometimes I perceived a shadow of stigma for being a child of long-haired back-to-the-land transplants in Crawford County. As soon as I came of age, I took every opportunity to study and travel afar. In the Reader, others echo my meditations on escape from the confining coulees and isolated ridgetops of the Driftless: Hamlin Garland, Rick Harsch, Bob Wolf.

Eventually, I traveled just about as far away as possible. In rural India, a farmer lent me his copy of Kentuckian Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America. The situation in his country, this farmer told me, was the same as in the United States: many young people leaving rural areas, family farms becoming scarce, and small-town economies crumbling. Soon after, I moved back near my family, resolved to buck the trend, put down roots, and become a hometown hero.  I lasted about four months, then I was back to traveling.

Before the Heat of the Day. Painting by Kathie Wheeler of Hmong farmers in the Driftless region.

Over the next few years, I bounced between working on farms near home and shoestring trips abroad.  I’d like to say my fresh eyes returning each time helped me realize how remarkable the Driftless is, but who knows?  Maybe I would more truly appreciate the place if I had continued to put down roots throughout the seasons.

I’ve lived in Madison for a spell now, just outside the Driftless. It can be disorienting, to be in an urban environment, pursuing advanced degrees and other accolades of our era, while society seems to teeter, ever more polarized, along the lines of Berry’s Unsettling warning-cum-prophecy. Sometimes I feel like a moth entranced by the charm of the city lights. I am more at home without streetlamps, navigating my way among the fireflies and stars, open roads, and impromptu conversations with gas station acquaintances. Part of me fears that those open roads and rural conviviality will disappear as too many people from “the city” find the Driftless charming and proceed to blanket the land, as the glaciers never could, with floodlit backyard patios.

Farmed Frame. Machinery parts sculpture by David Wells, photography by Katrin Talbot.

My hope is that The Driftless Reader will serve as a sort of antidote to the poisonous polarity fed by fears like these, prompting us instead to fall in love with whatever place we’re in, and to make those shared affections a basis for conviviality and community with others there. In the closing selection of the book, Kevin Koch likens such an antidote to a vow of stability taken by the monks of New Melleray Abbey outside Dubuque. Rather than, as the monks vow, staying forever in the same locale, Kevin suggests for the rest of us, “a call to be in the fields, in the rain, the mud, and the clay no matter where we’re at, no matter for how long. Our dirty hands, wet faces and backs, and sore feet are testimony to our contact and connectedness to the earth that birthed us and will receive us back again.”

Creating this book has allowed me to cultivate connectedness with and within the Driftless, to establish some stability amid the whiplash of modern mobility. Seeing the place through others’ eyes, things quotidian and odd have become more remarkable, personal, and even beloved. Thoreau celebrated redwing blackbirds prevailing on the Mississippi. Robin Kimmerer puzzled out the patterns of mosses on Kickapoo River cliffs. Amish neighbors, normally aloof from politics, rallied via public letter the outcry against proposed low-level military training flights. Truman Lowe, sculpting aluminum lattice into a thunderbird form, linked his Ho-Chunk clan with the mounds that grace the region.  Kathe Davis, who I’m sad to say passed away recently, wrote in the closing line of her poem Things I Love about Where I Am, “All the long-haired men.”  When I was a teenager, my dad’s long hair was a source of untold embarrassment; now, I see things differently.

I hope the rich array of voices in this book can likewise give others a chance to see the Driftless, and any all-too-familiar or otherwise disregarded place, in a new light. For starters, consider that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea.

Keefe Keeley

Keefe Keeley, a native of the Kickapoo Valley, is co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, working with farmers to diversify and perennialize agriculture in the Upper Midwest. He is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Path of Totality: Illuminating THE DISINTEGRATIONS

On August 21, the United States experienced its first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in almost one hundred years. The next day, August 22, we officially published Alistair McCartney’s new novel The Disintegrations. Here, McCartney reflects on the eclipse and other books that inspired his.

During the recent eclipse, the moon or its shadow blocked the sun; in some places that lay in the so-called path of totality, it did so completely, for up to two and half minutes.

When I found out the official publication date for The Disintegrations was the day after the solar eclipse, it struck me as a good omen. On further reflection, it also struck me as appropriate: this is a book about a guy who’s trying to unravel the secret of death, a book that aims to cloak the reader in at least partial, temporary darkness.

The process of writing The Disintegrations was long and arduous. It took me about nine years to realize the book. The challenges this novel presented were related to content—writing about death and the dead is an impossible task—but form was also a challenge, as I tried to figure out the right structure to hold together the pieces I was assembling.

Like most writers, I turned to other books while attempting to solve this aesthetic problem. These eleven books helped me figure it out, placed me in their path of totality, their shadows providing a source of illumination.

Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972; Translator Ralph Mannheim, 1975.
I first read this novella from Handke as a student in the late 1990s, and it floored me, in particular this Austrian author’s ability to write about the suicide of his mother with such objectivity: “My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks: I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away, and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.” (199).

One of the main struggles I encountered in writing The Disintegrations was finding the right voice and tone to articulate death, one that didn’t make my skin crawl. I re-read A Sorrow and it acted as a signpost for me, to help me locate that register. Although my book springs from nonfiction—all my writing does—through my point of view, it becomes fiction. Handke’s definition of fiction in an interview from 1980 resonates deeply with me: “[My novels] are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction.”

Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence, 1948; Translator Lydia Davis, 1976.
I was already well into writing The Disintegrations (which for years I was calling The Death Book) when I read the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s miraculous little novel (or récit) Death Sentence.  Like Handke’s novella it’s less than one hundred pages. Blanchot’s strange, crystalline perspective on death, thanks to Lydia Davis’ incredible translation, was essential:  “These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth” (1).

I reread this book about a year later, to keep learning how to write my own book. Like all astonishing books, it continued both to teach me and to elude me. Its style, both simple and ambiguous, was crucial as I forged my own style. The compression of Blanchot’s work guided me in radically compressing my own book from a much longer draft. (Earlier versions were three times as long as the “final” product.)  Blanchot wrote not novels but récits, which is what The Disintegrations is: a book where the author and narrator are one and the same, a self-reflexive book that is as much about what cannot be told as what can, a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction. As Lars Iyer writes in “Blanchot, Narration, and The Event,” a “récit would interrupt both the assurance of the novelist who creates and preserves a world and also the assurance of the reader, for whom the world the novel imitates is the same world he or she inhabits.” More than any other writer, Blanchot showed me how to write from a place of impossibility: the impossibility of representing or writing (about) death, the impossibility of representing anything.

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, 1886; translator John Ashbery, 2011.
I’ve loved the Illuminations since I was a teenager, rereading the Louise Varese translation almost every year. Rimbaud is in my bloodstream. For my fortieth birthday, my friend David Schweizer gave me a copy of the new Ashbery translation of Rimbaud, and it reignited my relationship to this beloved book. Although thematically The Disintegrations is perhaps more my version of A Season in Hell, if you look at any of the less narrative-driven chapters such as “A Hole in the World” or “Disintegration” or “Data” or “Odors” or “Immortality,” you see the trace of Rimbaud’s prose poems throughout this book. I am , if truth be told, a poet who disguises himself as a prose writer. You also see this majestic book’s influence in the title, The Disintegrations, a phrase which, when I hit upon it, struck me as the dark mirror image of the Illuminations. Throughout this book, my narrator finds himself in an inverted mode of astonishment, a negative state of wonder.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 1975; Translator Jonathan Griffin, 1977.
My initial “finished” draft of the book was written in a much more straightforward, linear manner (or, at least, my version of linear). Of course, I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the draft that this is not the kind of novel I should be writing. I did a radical revision last year, gutting the book, re-tuning the voice, rewiring the apparatus. Blanchot’s notion of the récit helped me realize this. So did the great filmmaker Robert Bresson’s summary of the non-linear nature of the aesthetic process:  “My movie [book] is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film [in the book] but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen [the page], come to life again, like flowers in water.” (p. 23)

Although I would not have minded getting to the final version sooner, Bresson’s characterization of the process as a dialectic of creation and destruction gave a logic to my own drawn-out process in which I built the book, destroyed it, then reordered it into what it was meant to be.

Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” in Against Interpretation, 1966.
Following the major revision, which was profoundly liberating (the only “easy” stage of writing this book), I did a line edit that was far more excruciating. I’d get up at 4 a.m. in the February dark, so I had time before I went to work. I was especially struggling with one of the stories “Eun Kang and the Ocean.” Robert Bresson’s films Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably had been essential for me at various stages of writing, in ways that I can’t put into words, something to do with their purity, their directness and indirectness, their formal coolness, and I found myself reading Sontag’s essay on his films in Against Interpretation (one of my favorite books ever) to help me articulate the power of Bresson’s work: “The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence—an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.” (181). Reading this allowed me to continue narrating Eun Kang’s story, to sustain a detachment to my subject, and to strive towards my perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

My perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.
Although European writers are my primary source of inspiration, in some ways I think of The Disintegrations as my American book. I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent when one of my older sisters passed it on to me. In Australia, at least in the 1980s, Catcher wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous or canonical as it is here in the States. Anyway, I found myself rereading it fairly early on in writing The Disintegrations, and I was astonished by the book, how complex and perverse it is beneath a seemingly simple narrative. And of course, there’s the purity of the voice of the adorable Holden Caulfield, whom I continue to have a big crush on. Needless to say Catcher was a major influence on The Disintegrations, an influence I had to tone down, pull back on, distort, even reject, as I was striving for a less intimate effect and a less forthcoming voice. But the ghost of Salinger and Holden Caulfield is still in The Disintegrations, especially in the sections “The Weight”, “Chris, a Recipe”, and “How to Dispose of Me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or,The Whale, 1851.
While we’re on the subject of American classics, Moby Dick also cast its spell on me during the writing process, just as it has cast its spell on so many writers. In that earlier, much lengthier draft—which incidentally was titled The Death Book; or, The Disintegrations in homage to Melville’s title—I had a bunch of epigraphs on death, just like the “Extracts” section of quotes about whales in Melville’s novel, and I included this line from Melville himself: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of life and death” (p 42). Luckily I saw reason. To try to write one’s own Moby Dick is a quest as futile and full of hubris as Captain Ahab’s. I realized the goal of my death book was far more modest. But Melville continued to inspire me. The Disintegrations remains a book about a guy as single-minded as Ahab and as solitary as Ishmael, on a dangerous quest to find the unknowable. Melville’s (or Ishmael’s) assertion that we’ve gotten the life-death equation wrong is a major theme in the narrative. And Melville’s glorious chapter headings and the book’s protean form can absolutely be seen in the structure I ended up employing to articulate the ineffable.

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer, 1977.
Joan Didion is one of my favorite living American writers. The Disintegrations owes so much to her astringent, acute perspective on the interplay between sunshine and death in California. I love her nonfiction but also her fiction. Apart from the voice and tone, the major difficulty with writing my own book was coming up with a structure to contain the fragments. When I undertook that radical revision, restructuring the linear narrative I’d created, Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer was so instructive as a model of how to do this. Didion’s organic, fugue-like composition, her use of repetition and recurring motifs, and the cool, precise use of first person, really showed me how to tap into my own narrative fugue.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights, 1848; Translator Alan Myers, 1995.
I was pretty aware of the influences on this work as I wrote, but one that took me by surprise was “White Nights,” an early short story of Dostoevsky’s. I’d read it a long time ago and picked it up to reread. I was struck not only by how beautiful it is but also by how much the story inspired The Disintegrations. “White Nights” tells the story of a lonely guy in Saint Petersburg who wanders around at night, who thinks too much, and who meets a young woman he falls in love with, but who can’t love him back. (Incidentally, Bresson’s Four Nights is a retelling of this book.)

The more straightforward version of The Disintegrations saw my narrator wandering around the cemetery with an unnamed companion, telling him all his ideas about death. As I mentioned, I had to do away with that artifice, but Dostoevsky’s discursive, philosophical, morbid, dreamy tone is still very much at play in what you’re reading—see the chapter “An Encounter” as an example. Like his narrator, mine is similarly “oppressed by such strange thoughts, such gloomy sensations; questions still so obscure to me are crowding into my brain and I seem to have neither power nor will to settle them” (33).  The Disintegrations may appear to be unconventional, but in many ways it’s quite old-fashioned, a nineteenth-century novel of ideas rewired for this century. Dostoevsky is one of those writers who have been with me since I was a teenager and follow me around whether I like it or not.

Dennis Cooper, The Marbled Swarm, 2011.
For me, Cooper is up there with Didion as one of the greatest living American writers. I’ve read all his novels. He’s one of the few contemporary American writers who create absolute fictive worlds; by this I mean a book that is placed under the extreme pressure of the author’s totalizing vision—the outside world no longer matters. These are the kinds of books I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. The Marbled Swarm has this propulsive narrative rhythm to it that was really important to me as I constructed my book’s own idiosyncratic rhythm. I was thinking a lot about my narrator’s secrets, what he reveals, what he doesn’t reveal, what’s unknown to him, what is untellable. Cooper’s masterful work, and its ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic focus on concealment, was a guiding light.

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, 1992; translator Michael Hulse, 1996.
I discovered Sebald’s work as an MFA student in the late 1990s. Like so many readers, I was immediately bewitched; I devoured all his books. He died during my final MFA residency, while I was rereading The Rings of Saturn. But it’s The Emigrants, the first of his books that I read, that has stayed with me the most: the delicacy and obliqueness with which he approaches the Holocaust. And of course his amazing fusion of genres—each book an alchemical combination of fiction, memoir, travelogue, history and biography—as well as his deft combining of the traditional and the experimental.

Sebald is one of those writers that I think you don’t want to get too close to, aesthetically. His work is so singular that to be too influenced by it, at least literally, would just result in a pale imitation. I work in an entirely different register, yet my blurring of genres in The Disintegrations—fiction and nonfiction, story and eulogy, poetry and obituary—owes so much to Sebald, as does the  book’s voice and tone in which I try to tread lightly. The trace of his voice, still so strong sixteen years after his death, can be seen in a story like “Aino’s Song”, especially the character of Herta, as well as “My Grandfather’s Hemorrhage.”

Alistair McCartney

Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White debut fiction award. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.

 

Contemporary Literature journal marks 57 years of publishing

This guest post is written by Eileen Ewing, Managing Editor of Contemporary Literature

This year marks Contemporary Literature’s fifty-seventh year of publication. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature was begun by graduate students in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1960.

The journal publishes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. Over the decades, many literary luminaries have been featured in the journal, often early in their careers.  CL published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo. It also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J.M. Coetzee to American readers. At the links, read some fascinating recent interviews found exclusively in Contemporary Literature with poet Brian Kim Stefans, novelist Rachel Kushner, and novelist Anthony Cartwright.

L. S. Dembo, a scholar of modernist poetry, became editor of the journal in 1966 and shortened its title two years later. During his twenty-four years as editor, Dembo’s dedication to all that is exciting in modern and contemporary literature helped the journal to attain the international readership and large subscription base that he and the associate editors (Cyrena N. Pondrom, Betsy Draine, Phillip Herring, Jay Clayton, and Thomas Schaub) sought for it.

At Dembo’s retirement in 1990, Thomas Schaub took over as editor and shifted the parameters for submissions to work on post-World War II literature in English. The journal continued to publish interviews with established and emerging authors, articles featuring a diversity of critical practices, and reviews of scholarly books. Throughout the next two decades, Schaub and the associate editors (Richard Begam, Lynn Keller, Rafael Pérez‑Torres, Robert S. Baker, Jacques Lezra, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz) kept Contemporary Literature at the forefront of its field as a forum for discussing the issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies.

In 2009, the editorship of the journal was restructured as a collective led by Lynn Keller (poetry), Thomas Schaub (American fiction and drama), and Rebecca Walkowitz (British and Anglophone fiction and drama). The three co-editors worked closely with six new associate editors: Alan Golding, Adalaide Morris, Amy Hungerford, Sean McCann, Matthew Hart, and John Marx.

The current editorial collective is composed of Yogita Goyal (British and Anglophone fiction and drama), Michael LeMahieu and Steven Belletto (American fiction and drama), and Timothy Yu (poetry), with Thomas Schaub acting as executive editor. The associate editors are Elizabeth S. Anker, David James, Heather Houser, Jessica Pressman, Alan Golding, and Adalaide Morris.

 

Revised 7/10/17 to add byline.

Researching Facts While Writing Fiction

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release a paperback edition of Death at Gills Rock, the second Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery. Three local World War II veterans about to be honored for their military heroics die from carbon monoxide poisoning during a weekly card game. A faulty heater is blamed, but Cubiak puzzles over details. In this post, author Patricia Skalka does some puzzling of her own over how best to undertake research for a mystery.

One of the most unexpected aspects of writing a mystery is the amount of varied research needed to fill out a story. When I worked as a freelancer and Reader’s Digest staff writer, research was an essential element in nearly every assignment. Once I started writing mysteries, I thought that part of the job was behind me. But I was wrong.

Death at Gills Rock, the second volume in the Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries, is a good example. I knew that I wanted to write a story involving childhood friends who had served together in World War II, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. When a Door County neighbor told me that recruits to the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Contingent were posted in the Aleutian Islands, I had my first lead.

However, at that point, I knew little about the Coast Guard, less about the Aleutian Islands, and virtually nothing about how either factored into the war. To create a credible story, I had to ferret out specific historical details and background material that spanned decades. To start, I interviewed the head of the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Station, hunted through library catalogs, and searched the internet. Much of the information I needed was buried in out-of-print history books, old military newsletters, and obscure magazine articles. The material was fascinating. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn. Finally, I had to stop researching and start writing!

I knew from experience that only a portion of what I learned would make its way into the novel. After all, I was writing a mystery story, not a history book. Difficult decisions had to be made. I could use only what added to the story itself, but even what I couldn’t include in the book stays with me and is worth sharing.

Even what I couldn’t include in the book stays with me and is worth sharing. Click To Tweet

Let’s start with the U.S. Coast Guard. This division of the U.S. military was established in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service and remains the nation’s longest extant military branch. From 1794 to 1865, the Coast Guard’s primary function was to stop slave ships and prevent them from reaching American shores. Under the Timber Act of 1822, it was also charged with the task of protecting government forests from poachers!

Fast forward to World War II and the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago that extends a thousand miles west from the coast of Alaska. It’s location made the island critical after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1942, the Japanese had captured two small islands in the long chain—the first time since the War of 1812 that a foreign army occupied US territory. The Japanese wanted control of the Aleutians to prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific; while the Americans feared that the Japanese could use them to launch an assault on the West Coast. The Aleutian campaign also had a secret mission to train American naval forces for a possible invasion of Japan; this was not revealed until after the war.

In Death at Gills Rock, I refer to the battle of Attu, an eighteen-day siege in which U.S. forces recaptured the island as part of the U.S. campaign to oust the Japanese. What’s not mentioned is that the battle was one of the most costly assaults in the Pacific: for every one hundred enemy combatants found on the island, about seventy-one Americans were killed or wounded.

In gathering material for Death at Gills Rock, I also expanded my knowledge about societal norms and learned the specifics of raising puppies and outfitting a wooden sailboat—subjects I knew little or nothing of before I started the project.

Research may not be easy, but it is rewarding. I hope that by weaving facts into my mysteries, I provide readers with a more satisfying and substantial experience. Certainly, taking the time to get things correct makes me a better writer.
Taking the time to get things correct makes me a better writer. Click To Tweet

Photo by B. E. Pinkham

Patricia Skalka is a former freelance staff writer for Reader’s Digest specializing in medical and human interest stories. She has worked as a magazine editor, ghost writer, and writing instructor. A native of Chicago, she divides her time between the city and her cottage in Door County, Wisconsin.

The Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series so far

Next book coming 2018!

New books in May 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in May.

May 9, 2017
WHISPERS OF CRUEL WRONGS
The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911
Edited by Mary Maillard

Louisa Jacobs was the daughter of Harriet Jacobs, author of the famous autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That work included a heartbreaking account of Harriet parting with six-year-old Louisa, taken away to the North by her white father. Now, rediscovered letters reveal the lives of Louisa and her circle and shed light on Harriet’s old age.

“A rich and fascinating portrait of Philadelphia’s and Washington D.C.’s black elite after the Civil War. Even as the letters depict the increasingly troubled political status and economic fortunes of the correspondents, they offer rare glimpses into private homes and inner emotions.”—Carla L. Peterson,author of Black Gotham

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

May 16, 2017
TO OFFER COMPASSION
A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion
Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf

“Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with opposition to abortion, but before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized it in the U.S., clergy organized to protect pregnant women and direct them to safe abortions. Dirks and Relf explore this extraordinary and little-known history through detailed first-person interviews and extensive research with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who, between 1967 and 1973, created a pregnancy counseling service and national underground network to provide women with options for adoption, parenting assistance, and pregnancy termination. . . . Critically important social history that too many in today’s abortion wars have never known or chosen to forget.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

 

May 23, 2017
SPIRIT CHILDREN
Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana
Aaron R. Denham

“A brilliant, sensitive, and moving book about the heartbreaking phenomenon of infanticide. This is a book to be taken seriously by hospital personnel, public health policymakers, NGO workers, and anyone interested in the fate of the world’s most vulnerable young children.”—Alma Gottlieb, coauthor of A World of Babies

“A skillful ethnography of the spirit child phenomenon in northern Ghana—children who fail to thrive, are feared to harm their families, and therefore should be ‘sent back.’ This insightful, theoretically rich analysis offers a nuanced ecological, economic, and cultural explanation of maternal attachment.”—John M. Janzen, author of The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Thomas Spear, Neil Kodesh, Tejumola Olaniyan, Michael G. Schatzberg, and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
THE LAND REMEMBERS

The Story of a Farm and Its People  9th Edition
Ben Logan
With an introduction by Curt Meine

“Ben Logan is strikingly successful in recalling his own boyhood world, a lonely ridge farm in southwestern Wisconsin. . . . He reviews his growing-up years in the 1920s and ’30s less with nostalgia than with a naturalist’s eye for detail, wary of the distortions of memory and sentiment.”—Christian Science Monitor

“A book to be cherished and remembered.”—Publishers Weekly

 

 

May 30, 2017
PINERY BOYS
Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
Edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary

As the heyday of the lumber camps faded, a young scholar named Franz Rickaby set out to find songs from shanty boys, river drivers, and sawmill hands in the Upper Midwest. Pinery Boys now incorporates, commemorates, contextualizes, and complements Rickaby’s 1926 book. It includes annotations throughout by folklore scholar James P. Leary and an engaging biography by Rickaby’s granddaughter Gretchen Dykstra. Central to this edition are the fifty-one songs that Rickaby originally published, plus fourteen additional songs selected to represent the

Franz Rickaby

varied collecting Rickaby did beyond the lumber camps.

“[Rickaby] was the first to put the singing lumberjack into an adequate record and was of pioneering stuff. … His book renders the big woods, not with bizarre hokum and studied claptrap … but with the fidelity of an unimpeachable witness.”—Carl Sandburg

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest Series
Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
The second book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series
DEATH AT GILLS ROCK
Patricia Skalka

“In her atmospheric, tightly written sequel, Skalka vividly captures the beauty of a remote Wisconsin peninsula that will attract readers of regional mysteries. Also recommended for fans of William Kent Krueger, Nevada Barr, and Mary Logue.”
Library Journal, starred review

“Three World War II heroes about to be honored by the Coast Guard are all found dead, apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning while playing cards at a cabin. . . . The second installment of this first-rate series (Death Stalks Door County, 2014) provides plenty of challenges for both the detective and the reader.”Kirkus Reviews

“Skalka captures the . . . small-town atmosphere vividly, and her intricate plot and well-developed characters will appeal to fans of William Kent Krueger.”Booklist

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.

Why write a novel instead of a memoir?

Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of A Thin Bright Line, explains why a novel is the best way to honor the true story of her aunt and namesake, providing a glimpse of the woman behind her accomplishments. 

The line between fiction and memoir has been blurred in recent years, putting many memoirists on the defense about the role of imagination in their books. How much of a story should be supported by documentation? How much creativity is fair game in memoir storytelling? Is it okay to shift timeframes or make up dialogue, and still call a book “nonfiction”?

I could have called my new novel, A Thin Bright Line, a memoir. The story, based on ten years in the life of my aunt and namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe, is steeped in fact and eight years of research.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, on September 29, 1966, Lucybelle Bledsoe, my dad’s sister and my namesake, died in an apartment fire. I was 9 years old.

As I grew up, I could only glean a few intriguing tidbits about my namesake. I knew that, like so many other women of her generation, she used the cover of WWII to shoot off the Arkansas farm and run off to New York. I knew she wanted to go to law school, and when my grandfather forbid it, she studied for and passed the bar exam anyway, without the benefit of law school. My mother told me that she was extremely independent, that even in the 50s and 60s, Lucybelle didn’t allow men to hold doors open for her.

One day, about 8 years ago, a friend suggested I Google my aunt. I didn’t expect to find anything. After all, Lucybelle was just a farm girl who died in 1966.

Lucybelle Bledsoe

Lucybelle Bledsoe

What I discovered astonished me. Lucybelle Bledsoe was a key player in a top secret, though recently declassified, Cold War project involving studying the properties of ice. The fear at the time was that the Russians would attack via the Arctic, and the government wanted to be ready. She became fluent in Russian as part of her work and had top security clearance.

Lucybelle Bledsoe was also a queer woman who carried on, despite the McCarthy Era fears about hiring gay people in highly classified positions. The work she and the Army Corps of Engineer scientists did from 1956 to 1966 included pulling the first ever complete ice cores from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. These cores are still being studied today and are considered the beginning of climate change research.

So why not write this story as a biography? Or a memoir of my time with my aunt?

It’s a very good question. I could have used the biography form to write about the convergence of the Cold War, the history of climate change research, and LGBT history. And certainly my novel embraces all these topics.

But what gripped me most about Lucybelle’s story was her courage, the way she made her way to Greenwich Village at the tender age of 20 in 1944, how she found women lovers, and how she managed a queer life in spite of the times, in spite of McCarthy, and while holding a highly classified government job. I am most interested in her heart, who she loved, how she found her strength and bravery.

14716171_10209163985610764_6157701390193291084_nSo I interviewed everyone who knew her. I found the name of her partner, the woman who mourned her death. I sent for her death certificate and even interviewed some firemen and neighbors who’d been on the scene of the fire that killed her. I interviewed her coworkers and childhood friends. I traveled to Arkansas, Chicago, New York, and New Hampshire and haunted all the places she’d lived.

A Thin Bright Line is based on a wealth of fact. But I imagined how she felt in between the facts. I imagined the words she spoke in her most intimate moments. I do believe that imagination, in concert with research, can reach a deeper truth.  

Bledsoe-Lucy-2016-cLucy Jane Bledsoe is an award-winning science writer and novelist for adults and children. Her many books include The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic, The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica, This Wild Silence, and Working Parts. A native of Portland, Oregon, she lives in Berkeley, California.

 

Mystery writer interviews the FBI

Patricia Skalka, author of Death in Cold Water, the third installment of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries, speaks about her experience writing a mystery novel, interviewing the FBI, and why Cubiak is so relatable. 

Death in Cold Water is the third book of your Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries. When you started writing, did you envision that you’d do a series? Not at all. In fact, the prospect of writing a series seemed quite overwhelming and far beyond the scope of anything I could imagine. I started Death Stalks Door County, the first book, with the intention that it would be a stand-alone mystery. One and done, as they say. But as the book developed, additional story lines materialized. And by the time I had completed a solid draft, I felt so close to my characters that I didn’t want to walk away from them. I saw them as real people whose lives extended into the future. By then it seemed only natural to use the first book as a stepping stone into a series.

Without revealing any secrets, what can you tell us about Death in Cold WaterThere are two story lines in the book. The first involves the disappearance of a prominent Door County philanthropist who has strong ties to the Green Bay Packers. His presumed kidnapping leads to FBI agents joining the story. The second plot revolves around human bones that wash up on a beach north of Baileys Harbor. My lead character, Sheriff Dave Cubiak, uncovers the story behind them.

Is there a common motif in your books? In each of the three books I’ve written and in the fourth that’s in progress, the crime that occurs in present time is linked to past events. By this, I mean stories that span several decades and involve the kind of old secrets and misdeeds that become lost in the mist of memory and slowly ferment beneath the surface of daily life. I like to present my protagonist with complex puzzles that involve several potential and often conflicting motives and a panoply of suspects. In solving crimes, he must shift through layers of often conflicting clues and circumstances and delve deep into people’s lives before he arrives at the truth.

One of two range lights at Baileys Harbor active from 1869 to 1969. The lanterns were originally fueled by lard or whale oil, later by kerosene and acetylene gas until converted to electricity.

One of two range lights at Baileys Harbor active from 1869 to 1969. The lanterns were originally fueled by lard or whale oil, later by kerosene and acetylene gas until converted to electricity.

Is Dave Cubiak, your protagonist, based on a real person? Dave Cubiak is a figment of my imagination drawn from bits and pieces of many of the people whose paths have crossed mine over the years. His aspirations might be drawn from one individual; his story of loss from another; his physical appearance based on yet someone else. Mostly he was an idea that slowly assumed a personality and physical presence as the concept for the first book evolved. To solve the mystery and carry the reader along as clues were discovered, I needed the fresh eyes and objectivity that only an outsider could bring. When readers met Cubiak in my first mystery, Death Stalks Door County, he was a former Chicago homicide detective turned park ranger. He’s a reluctant protagonist who slowly grows into his role of hero.

I created Cubiak as the kind of sheriff I would want to arrive on the scene if I were ever the victim of a crime or in need of help. At a recent event, one reader said he thinks of Cubiak as “a man who does the right thing.”  I think that really sums up Dave Cubiak.

Where do you find your inspiration for the books you write? Mysteries generally evolve from one of three elements: setting, characters, or plot. Death in Cold Water grew directly from the plot. I knew that I wanted to write a story about a kidnapping. The next step was deciding on the victim, the motive behind the crime, and the culprits, and then weaving the three together in a coherent story.

Death at Gills Rock, the second volume in the series, emerged from the characters and my desire to write a book involving veterans from World War II. I’d read newspaper articles and seen many reports on the vanishing population of veterans and knew I had to do something soon. One day, I was talking to one of my Door County neighbors about the idea and she mentioned that the Coast Guard contingent from Sturgeon Bay had served in the Aleutian Islands during the war. That was all I needed to get started.

A Door County sunrise.

A Door County sunrise.

The idea for Death Stalks Door County, the first book, grew directly from the setting. After spending a perfect afternoon on the beach, I found myself in the same spot on an inky black night. The contrast between day and night made me think of the disparity between light and dark, and good and evil, which led to imagining a story in which sinister forces were at work beneath a veneer of perfection. From this, I came up with the plot line and characters for my first mystery.

How much, if any, research do you do for your mysteries? Whenever I come up against something about which I know little or nothing, I do research. I don’t let a lack of knowledge about a subject stand in my way of writing about it. But I don’t fabricate facts either. Writing only what you know is fine if you’re already someone with boundless knowledge! I believe in writing about that which I am willing to learn, and I always encourage aspiring writers not to be inhibited by a lack of knowledge about a given subject as long as they are willing to do the research.

Death in Cold Water involves the FBI, and prior to writing the book all I knew about the agency was what I picked up from news articles and TV shows. I had much to learn about the FBI’s involvement in kidnapping cases and started by gathering as much information as I could from the bureau’s website and from various books and magazine articles. Once I had a sense of the story, I went through the plot and tried to imagine where and how the FBI would figure in. With this general overview pretty well laid out, I was ready to talk with real-life agents.

What was it like interviewing the FBI? Overall, I’d say it was rather intimidating. Where to start? The bureau has offices in more than fifty major cities across the county, and since my story was set in Wisconsin, I assumed I should approach the Milwaukee office first. I sent an email to the Public Information Office there, explaining who I was and what I was doing and was told that all media inquiries have to go through Washington. That gave me pause. But after a few days of procrastinating, I sent essentially the same email to the PIO at headquarters. This time, I was asked to submit the type of questions I wanted answered.

That gave me further pause. I had dozens of specific questions, but I finally came up with five or six general queries and submitted the list. Within days, I had an appointment with two agents in the Chicago office.

The author reflected in the window of her cottage.

The author reflected in the window of her cottage.

Here were the guidelines: I could ask anything I wanted but wasn’t allowed to bring in any electronic devices. This meant no cell phones, recorders, or cameras. I entered the grounds through a small gate house where I was assigned a locker for my cell phone, which I’d forgotten to leave in the car. Once I was cleared, I walked the fifty or so feet to the main building carrying only my purse, a notepad, and a pen.

I met with two agents for more than two hours, taking notes by hand all the time we talked. They were extremely helpful, and both really liked the ending I wrote!  I wasn’t allowed to mention either of the agents by name in the acknowledgements.

The books in your series move through time. Why is that? Cubiak is in a very bad place when we first meet him. He is burdened with grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter and overwhelmed with guilt because they died in an accident he feels he could have prevented. He is morose and withdrawn. Following in the footsteps of his alcoholic father, he also uses vodka to numb his feelings. He is a man apart and not very likable. I didn’t want to leave him there, and the only realistic way I could see to help him find some peace was to move him—and the stories—through time.

I envision the series covering a period of twenty years or so. Cubiak as well as the other central characters will grow older, as we do. Life circumstances will keep changing and they’ll face new issues and concerns. I thought this would be both an interesting and challenging way to structure the books.

Is there an overall arc to the series? Each book follows its own story arc but the series has an overarching story line which put simply is Cubiak’s personal journey of redemption. As I said earlier, he begins the series as a man tormented by grief and guilt, and in each book he learns a little more about how to live with the loss he has endured. His pain evolves over time but it will never really go away, and he has to grapple with the challenge of reconciling that which he cannot change. My goal is to help Cubiak reach a point where he can fully embrace both loss and life, no small challenge for anyone.

How do readers relate to Cubiak’s journey? I have been surprised and touched by how my readers relate to Cubiak. Women seem to want to take care of him; men say they like him because he’s “real.” People affected by loss are especially sympathetic to his plight. Many have told me that they appreciate the depth and ongoing nature of Cubiak’s struggle. They feel that my books speak to the truth of grief which is too often treated superficially. One reader experienced in helping others cope with post-traumatic stress said he thought Cubiak’s story was a story of hope for people dealing with traumatic loss.

Dave Cubiak, who started out rather unlikable, has developed something of a fan club. Readers ask about him; they express concern for his emotional well-being; they send emails asking when the next Dave Cubiak story will be out. For an author, there can be no greater compliment.

Watch Patricia Skalka in an interview by Chicago Public Television:

Patricia Skalka is the author of Death Stalks Door County and Death at Gills Rock, the first two volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series. A former writer for Reader’s Digest, she presents writing workshops throughout the United States and divides her time between Chicago and Door County, Wisconsin.