I’ve always been ambivalent about Master in Fine Arts programs, which have mushroomed since the 1980s into something many writers feel is essential to their success. But is it? I was lucky to begin my career at a time before MFA’s achieved the elitist status they enjoy today. Here’s a letter from Ed Southern, executive director of the North Carolina Writers Network, that pretty much sums up my own view of MFA programs, good and bad.
From the North Carolina Writers Network Newsletter, Spring 2019
A Letter from the Executive Director
by Ed Southern
I was talking some time ago with a representative from a major grantor, who let slip their surprise at the importance some of their grant panelists have placed on whether or not an individual applicant holds a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. Some panelists, this representative said, reject out-of-hand any applicant who does not have an MFA, feeling that those writers must not be truly serious about their art and craft.
If you feel as those panelists do—or if you are one of those panelists—I invite you . . . to take a look at some of the outstanding writing you’ve been missing and dismissing.
I am not anti-MFA, and neither is this column. Some of my favorite writers and people hold MFAs, teach MFA-level classes, and/or run MFA programs. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which I’d be against anyone furthering their education.
What I am against is elitism—or, more accurately, credentialism: the notion that the only path to “serious” writing runs through an MFA program.
This notion is not only rank snobbery, but like all forms of snobbery, it is lazy, callous, irresponsible, and cowardly. It is a dodge, a crutch, sparing those who hold this view from the work—sometimes hard, sometimes joyous, always necessary—of reading with fresh and humble eyes, mind, and heart. They’re letting admissions committees do their thinking for them.
I don’t hold an MFA: I tried graduate school, and found it wasn’t for me. So I found a job in a local bookstore, beginning my twenty-four years (and counting) in the literary world as bookseller, publisher, author, and director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that this proves and reflects a rather serious commitment to the art and craft of writing.
But never mind me, since I’m just in charge of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, not an inductee.
Of the last eight writers we have inducted into the NCLHOF, though—Dr. James W. Clark, Jr., Clyde Edgerton, Randall Kenan, Margaret Maron, Jill McCorkle, Penelope Niven, Carl Sandburg, and Marsha White Warren—none of them hold MFAs, either.
Some writers would love to pursue an MFA but cannot for any number of circumstances. Some writers choose a different direction.These different circumstances and directions enliven and enrich the stories.
I’ve heard some members suggest that the Network exists for those writers who couldn’t or didn’t pursue an MFA, but I reject that suggestion. The Network exists for all writers, for all who love the written word, whatever degrees they may or may not hold. We exist to encourage excellence, not elitism; creativity and critical thinking, not credentialism (as well as, apparently, assonance and alliteration).
If you earned an MFA, congratulations on your commitment to writing, and welcome. If you did not, congratulations on your commitment to writing, and welcome. Here, all we ask is that you keep writing, as well as you can.
Many years ago I was invited to a book festival in Ft. Lauderdale. Lots of authors participated in a host of programs, and later there was a signing at which each of us sat at a long table and readers lined up in front of us to buy our books and have us sign them. I was seated next to Carol Channing, who was there to promote her memoir. As you can imagine, there was a huge line waiting for her to sign and no line waiting for me. She must have seen how distressed I was because she leaned over, patted my hand and said, “It doesn’t mean anything, dear. It’s just because I’m a celebrity.” Not sure this cheered me up much, but it was a truly kind gesture on her part, and the memory has stayed with me for nearly 20 years.
One of the most memorable moments – and best lessons – of my writing life came early on. My first novel, Safe Passage, had just come out, and I had been invited to teach a class at The Writers Workshop in Asheville, followed by a signing at what was already the iconic Malaprop’s Bookstore. Emoke B’Racz, the owner, even picked me up at the airport instead of sending someone else, making me feel honored and important. The seminar went well. But oh! The signing promised to be a disaster.
Except for a few students who’d taken the class, no one bought a single book. The pleasant young clerk assigned to keep me company at my signing desk valiantly kept introducing me to readers who walked by looking for other titles, but after a while, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t savvy enough to know then that this was the fate of most unknown writers. I was crushed.
Then a middle-aged woman holding the hand of a little boy wandered by, undoubtedly on her way to the children’s department. As she’d been doing all afternoon, my intrepid clerk-companion got up and said, “Let me introduce you to Ellyn Bache . . . ” and went through her spiel. But instead of sneaking away, the woman listened, nodded with what looked like enthusiasm, and said, “Well then I’ll have to have one.”
By now the little boy was tugging at the woman’s arm so I signed the book quickly and let her go. It had been only one sale, but I felt restored.
“Do you know who that was?” my clerk-companion asked. “It was Gail Godwin. She brings her nephew in here often.”
Gail Godwin, whose novels I read and much admired, had bought my book!
Maybe she never opened it. Maybe she’d only bought it to be kind. No matter – her gesture had made me feel like a writer again, and not just a nuisance.
This happened nearly thirty years ago. Ever since, when I go into a bookstore where a writer sits alone and humbled, hoping to find an audience for a new book, I remember that long-ago afternoon in Asheville and how fragile an ego can be at the beginning of a career. Then I usually buy the book, if only to watch the sparkle come back into the writer’s eyes.
Advice from one of the great writing teachers of the 20th century, the late novelist Doris Betts, who spent many years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
In the modern short story, everything should lead up to one “bingo moment” for the main character.
This means that the story should be organized so that everything goes toward the critical moment or away from it. Sometimes we get to the “bingo moment” and stop. One perfect example: Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” where the action consists of the townspeople making their way to the eccentric, now-deceased Emily’s house, revealing bits about her background along the way, all the time moving toward the “bingo moment” when they discover one of her iron gray hairs on the pillow where she must have been sleeping next to the decomposed remains of the lover lying next to her. The sight of the hair explains everything we have learned while the townspeople were walking toward the house — Emily’s purchase of rat poison years back, the terrible smell around the house soon after the murder, and so on. Every detail now makes sense as something that leads up to critical moment. Nothing is extraneous. We see the hair. Bingo! The story ends.
“A Rose for Emily” was published nearly a century ago and remains a powerful classic.
This is not to say that the story should always end at that moment of revelation. Depending on the subject matter, the story might require a bit more summing up. But not too much. The sooner it ends after the bingo moment, the more power it retains.
In addition, the “bingo moment” should be in the present time of the story, not in a flashback. In the title story of Lee Smith’s collection, “Me and My Baby View the Eclipse,” an otherwise happily-married housewife and mother, Sharon, has been having a clandestine affair with a local pharmacist, Raymond. Then, on a day when he comes to her house so they can watch the eclipse in her backyard and then go to her bed, they are discovered afterward by her six-year-old coming home from school. Raymond, nearly dressed, distracts the child, but the next day, when the girl asks who he was, Sharon says, “Oh, just nobody,”and suddenly realizes that is true. This is the bingo moment. The affair is over. She will always love Raymond, but she loves her family and her life more.
A lesser writer might have flashed back to the near-discovery of the affair. A lesser writer might have had her mulling over what happened yesterday and telling the reader the affair ended then. But it didn’t. It ended when her semi-aware daughter asked a question she never wanted asked. It ended in the present.
Writers sometimes like to scoff at the concept of a defining bingo moment in contemporary stories, but I would argue that, in the most powerful works, they’re usually there. One way to troubleshoot a story-in-progress that doesn’t quite work is to look at it scene by scene, ask if each element is leading up to the bingo moment, and remove or revise any element that isn’t. Then, make sure that the bingo moment is in the present of the story. This can be a valuable tool for making the work memorable, suggesting small changes that can add up to big differences in the effect the work has on the reader.
If the story is about a bear, bring on the bear.
There’s no better way to drive off a potential reader than to frontload a story, or even a novel, with a lot of extraneous material. Paragraphs about the turning leaves, the deteriorating neighborhood, the family’s history — all of these can be lovely, even lyrical, and the details may even be essential to the finished work. But more times than not, putting the critical subject first will keep the reader reading instead of checking the phone.
One of the most powerful ways to introduce the bear is with a zinger one-liner:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
“I am an invisible man.” — Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.” The Stranger, Albert Camus
And on a considerable less famous note: “I hated my mother in the summer of 1963, and as I recall, she hated me back.”—The Activist’s Daughter, Ellyn Bache
But more often than not, it takes more than one line to introduce the bear. The opening can be as long as you like so long as it encapsulates the main subject of the story and is potent enough to keep the reader’s attention.
“One night, deep into it, when sounds are prone to carry, a baby boy lies crying on Sara Creamer’s kitchen table. He is minutes old, still wet with his mother’s blood, and hungry for his mother’s milk.
But she does not hear his cries She is no longer there.”
This is the opening of Bren McClain’s critically acclaimed debut novel, “One Good Mama Bone,” about a young woman who takes on the job of raising her husband’s orphaned, illegitimate child. It’s a unique and remarkable story about motherhood, in which a cow (yes — and though it sounds unlikely, it works amazingly well) teaches Sarah how to deal with the daunting tasks of motherhood. Though the cow becomes a powerful mother figure. the critical focus (the “bear,” if you will) is on the young woman who will be thrown into a predicament she can’t escape — something suggested in those first lines.
“At four-thirty on Sunday morning Mag came up from sleep with her heart thumping and sweat pouring from her, the way she’d awakened years ago when her son Izzy was out delivering newspapers and she found him two blocks away lying on the street with a broken ankle. She sat up in bed, wide awake, sick to her stomach. She hated motherly premonitions; she thought she was through with them. Except for Simon the seven boys were grown.” From my novel, Safe Passage, about a family with a son/brother in Beirut when terrorists attack the airport that serves as a Marine headquarters.
“The dog was a tan fice–Cowlicked, thin pointed sticks for legs, a pointed little face with powerful whiskers, one ear flopped and one straight.
He was lying on the back steps of Mattie Rigsbee’s brick ranch one summer Saturday morning when she opened the door to throw out a pan of table scraps for the birds. She placed her foot on the step beside him. She was wearing the leather shoes she’d cut slits in for her corns. The dog didn’t move. Holding the bowl, Mattie stepped on out into the yard and tried to see if it was a him or her so she could decide whether or not it would have been possible to keep it if she were younger and more able. If it insisted on staying she would have to call the dogcatcher because she was too old to look after a dog–with everything else she had to do to keep up the house and yard. She was, after all, seventy-eight, lived alone, and was — as she kept having to explain — slowing down.”
Much more low-key than the other examples, this is the opening of Clyde Edgerton’s comic novel, Walking Across Egypt, about an aging woman who is decidedly not slowing down. There’s detail here, yes, but very much focused on the character of Mattie, still far more vitally interested in life than she imagines — which is the whole point of this very funny book..
A few weeks ago, my “Tips for Fiction Writers” seminar was cancelled partly because high winds caused schools to close for two days and left our area in a state of high confusion. A couple of people asked me when the class would be rescheduled, and since I had no idea, I thought it might be useful to put some of the “tips”online, one at a time over a number of weeks, where anyone can get them for free.
These are very much “tips” and not rules, concepts that I’ve found useful in my own writing over the years, things to think about and put to work where you can. You may realize that you’re already using some of these ideas, probably because as a reader as well as a writer you’ve internalized them and subconsciously decided this was the best way to tell your story. For each topic, I’ve tried to give good examples that illustrate the concept, with links if possible – though there are literally thousands of other works of fiction that illustrate these points – and you can use the “tips” with or without studying the examples. Anyway, here goes – starting at the beginning.
Fiction Tip #1 – WHERE TO START
Most stories and most novels BEGIN WHEN EVERYTHING HAS HAPPENED BUT THE ACTION. A lot of us spend days and weeks writing a whole lot of backstory – mainly, I’ve come to believe, because we need it for ourselves. Then we get into the middle of things – and this is where the story really begins. That four (or six or ten) pages of backstory can be woven, later, into the forward action.
Another way to say this is to start in medias res – in the middle, after things have already gotten under way that will lead to the climactic moment of the piece.
Take a look at William Faulkner’s classic short story, “A Rose For Emily.”
As the story opens, Miss Emily Grierson has died and the whole town is walking toward her house after the funeral, “the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant . . . had seen in at least ten years.”
Right away we know that Emily, now buried, is an eccentric object of curiosity. The events that have shaped her are in the past, soon to be revealed by the narrator during the trek to her house. She wouldn’t pay taxes. She never married but once had a beau. Etc. The pilgrimage, with these details woven in, is the present action of the story – until the shocking finale. Putting any of the “middle” of this story at the beginning would only (in my opinion) have weakened its impact. “A Rose for Emily” was originally published in 1930. You’ve probably read it but if not, you’re in for a treat.
Some other examples:
From the novel Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award..
“The accused man, Kabuo Myamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his arms placed softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.”
The trial comprises the forward action of this brilliant novel about Japanese/American relations, and many, many other issues, in a fishing village on a small island in Puget Sound, in 1954. As the narrative moves through the trial, the reader gets to know Kabuo, his wife, the sheriff, the dead man, and others whose culture and character make up the flawed world in which they live.
“Pho,” from my collection “Kaleidoscope: 20 Stories Celebrating Women’s Fiction.” The story was a runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award and first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
“I had a small victory at the music festival in New Orleans, a first place win for my top piano student. I stayed for the awards ceremony, then drove my rental car to Biloxi to see the Nguyens before flying home to Maryland. It was late April, already oppressively hot in the muggy lowlands of Louisiana, the air so thick and weighty that my euphoria soon drained. My fingers ached, especially in the bad right hand. I struggled to grip the wheel. It was one of those days when I could hardly make a fist.”
Sheila is aging, arthritic, a bit depressed, and uncertain about retirement – all things that began long before the story does. The forward action consists of her visit with a Vietnamese family she helped sponsor more than 20 years before – a family she associates with such pleasant things as their delicious noodle soup, pho. In a small way, the visit – and the soup – cure her. When she leaves, even her hands don’t hurt.
Questions? Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE JOYS OF WOMEN’S MAGAZINE FICTION REVISITED
My first short story was published in McCall’s Magazine in 1981. I had been writing stories for six years by then, sending them out, getting rejections. So that first acceptance was a huge boost, the beginning of what turned out to be a long fiction-writing career. But it wasn’t until years later that I realized what I had tapped into. Until the late 1990s, and for most of the 20th century, women by the millions had looked to magazines like McCall’s and Good Housekeeping not just for recipes and decorating tips but for the short stories that appeared each month. At its height, McCall’s had a circulation of 8.4 million. I had loved women’s magazine fiction since I was 12 or 13, reading my mother’s magazines, not knowing millions of others were doing the same. I thought I would do this forever.
Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, technology- and budget-challenged magazines stopped publishing fiction – and some stopped publishing altogether. There was still women’s fiction, but it came in the form of novels, not short stories. Like most writers, I turned my hand to these longer works – and the short stories I sometimes wrote were longer, more intellectual – “literary” rather than “popular, satisfying in their way but not the same.
Then, time and again at book events, women would hear that I’d started my career writing magazine fiction and they’d reminisce with real fondness about how much they’d liked that type of story and still missed it, even years later. Everyone had a favorite story they still remembered. I did, too – “The Summer Kitchen,” a story from Redbook about making grape jelly in a hot kitchen, standing barefoot on the sticky floor, luxuriating in the purple smell of the grapes. To me, it was the quintessential description of an essentially feminine experience. Some years later, I met the author of that story, the poet and fiction writer Ruth Moose, who told me I wasn’t the only one who recalled that story with nostalgia. To my surprise, I heard similar recollections of some of my own stories and was deeply touched.
The ongoing, almost clandestine interest in that bygone genre was the germ of the idea for my new book, Kaleidoscope: 20 Stories Celebrating Women’s Magazine Fiction, a collection of my stories that originally appeared everywhere from Seventeen and Good Housekeeping to the beautiful, slick regional magazine, Virginia Country to the weekly entertainment newspaper Encore Magazine.
Because those stories were published over a 22 year period, I thought they’d be awfully old-fashioned when I went back – and was surprised to discover how current they still felt. Women’s fiction is often less about plot than about emotions – so even though the characters text instead of talking on a land line, their visceral reactions stay the same. Emotions are pretty universal, pretty timeless.
As one of the first collections of popular (as opposed to strictly “literary”) fiction at what is becoming time of renewed interest in the short story, Kaleidoscope offers a little bit of history along with a great deal of entertainment. Short stories have been a fixture in women’s magazines for centuries, everything from sweet romances to tales of horror – including some of Edgar Allan Poe’s early work in “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” the most important women’s magazine of the 19th century.
But will it make a comeback? General interest magazines continue to give way to special-interest publications about everything from knitting to body-building. A few that still use fiction tend toward simple, formulaic stories, not the sophisticated, thoughtful writing of years past.
But who knows? I think high quality women’s magazine fiction will be with us again for a long time, a much-loved genre with a future as well as a past.
GOOD GHOUL, BABYSITTER EXTRAORDINAIRE
(This also appeared in Chicago Literati, Oct. 31, 2016)
In more than thirty years of publishing fiction, I have written only one ghost story.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Also, I am afraid of them.
But many years ago when my four children were small, I was intrigued by the tale of a good ghoul as opposed to a scary one, with talents any harried mother might find irresistible.
The piece started not as fiction but as a feature for The Baltimore Sun Magazine, about a couple who had bought a spacious, pre-Civil War farmhouse to accommodate their growing family – two little boys and another on the way. Everyone loved the big rooms and large yard. What they didn’t love was the occasional chiming of a clock that didn’t exist, the sense they had of eyes watching them as they painted their family room, a rocking chair that rocked for no reason. They joked that the place must be haunted.
Then the baby was born. Almost at once, he slept through the night. His pacifier never fell out of his mouth. Once, a window that had been left open in his room was already secured against a summer storm when his mother came in to close it. Late one night, the parents returned from a party to see a long-haired girl – the babysitter, they assumed – visible in an upstairs window, comforting the baby. But inside the house, both the baby and the sitter were sound asleep.
A ghostly nanny? It seemed so. Research on the history of the house made them decide the ghost was a mother who, more than a century before, had lost her child. Maybe she was trying to protect this one.
But as time passed, the baby grew into a child who understood some of what was going on. When a local newspaper ran an article about the haunting, it spawned lots of gossip. Did the boy really see something? Or had he heard people talking about it, including his siblings? Either way, he was no longer comforted by the spectral being in his room. Night after night he woke up screaming. “The lady” was sitting in the empty rocking chair near his bed! He cried and fussed and became ever more agitated.
But what to do?
Soothing words didn’t work. Bribes (pancakes for breakfast!) were a joke. Appealing to reason produced louder temper tantrums. “You don’t believe me! I know you don’t!”
So the mother said the only thing she could. Of course she believed him! And like good mothers everywhere, she sat down with her son and had a talk with the offender. Speaking to the empty rocking chair where the ghost hung out, she spoke softly, with as much affection as she could muster. “I know you love him,” she told the chair. “I know you took good care of him. But now you’re making him frightened. If you really care for him, you’ll go away.”
And with a sudden sense of something leaving the room, the ghost did.
Did I believe it? Do you? Once, the family related, a guest had insisted she couldn’t sleep because a little blond-haired girl kept crawling into bed with her. Another had rushed from the bathroom claiming she’d been pushed from behind while she was washing her hair. Ghostly pranks? The good ghoul afraid of the menacing dark? Maybe. But how did that tie in with the mother’s description of a translucent scene she’d seen superimposed over the master bedroom, of slaves discussing the underground railroad? For me, it didn’t
All the same, I used almost everything I’d been told, and the story ran as planned in The Baltimore Sun Magazine.
Afterwards, I moved out of state and lost touch with the family. Sometimes I wished I could have talked to the young ward of the ghostly sitter to see what he remembered when he got older. But by then I was writing mostly fiction, and eventually my one-and-only ghost tale became a short story that was published in McCall’s in 1987. I didn’t think about it again until I began sorting through old stories for Kaleidoscope, a collection of my women’s magazine fiction from the 1980s and 1990s, due out next spring..
I suppose, like the ghosts themselves, old ghost stories never die.
As I said, I was the mother of four young children when I wrote mine. Now I’m the grandmother of fifteen. I still don’t believe in ghosts and I’m still afraid of them – but with a caveat. I figure that, if you are going to have a ghost in the house, it might as well babysit.
Like most writers with a string of books in print, I’m often asked about the covers.
Does the author get a say in them? Sometimes.
How important are they? Very.
And like most writers, I’ve seen my share of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Three truly wonderful covers. One disaster. Lots of in-between.
Depending on the publisher, and almost always with a big New York house, the author has little or no control over the cover. My 2011 novel, The Art of Saying Goodbye, was published by Harper Collins, which could have left me out of the design process entirely. But my editor, Carrie Feron, sent me each rendition, including the first one . . . an impressionistic painting of two women, one with her head on the other’s shoulder, being comforted as they sat on a park bench in floaty summer dresses, with a soft-focus white building in the background.
My daughter said it was pretty but looked like a lesbian love story in set World War II – not, as was actually the case, a contemporary novel about a group of 40-something women in an upscale suburban neighborhood, struggling with the illness of a longtime neighbor.
Even before I’d had time to object, Carrie rejected that first cover. She jettisoned several more. She ordered some fine-tuning. The final product was remarkable. A drawing of three women in jeans walking through a lovely but somber fall landscape, it captured perfectly the serious, powerful, graceful journey at the book’s center.
The novel got good reviews. It was chosen as an “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. It was nominated for SIBA’s annual book award.
How much did the cover influence that?
Hard to say. But experience tells me there was certainly some. Years before, my novel Festival in Fire Season had come out with a dust jacket featuring colorful azaleas, a hint of fire, and the word, “Sizzling” from the Publishers Weekly review – visuals so intriguing it was hard not to pick up the book. The novel became a Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club Selection, important in those days. Later, my novel Riggs Park featured three girls holding hands, hair flying as they ran through a summer landscape that perfectly conveyed happy friendships long past. The novel was selected to help launch a new line of women’s fiction
The Activist’s Daughter is about a girl from DC who flees her mother’s embarrassing civil rights activism by going to college in North Carolina (The South! oh no!) in the fall of 1963. It was published originally by a small, well-respected feminist press. I had no say in the cover, but a warm, pleasant-looking version was sent to me while the book was in production. Imagine my horror when the final copies arrived, all black-and-white and drab tan, with an illustration of a woman with her hair in a bun (in the ‘60s?) and an outfit (floral blouse, straight skirt) from no discernible era, being dragged off by what look like storm troopers. Above that is my name and the title of the book, nothing else. On the back cover, in tiny type, there’s a long plot summary, an excerpt, and some reviews but no hint that this is a novel – much less by a fiction writer whose earlier work, Safe Passage, had been made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon – a film many potential readers would know.
When I started finding copies of the book in the social studies sections of bookstores, it dawned on me that people thought the novel was a memoir.
Happily, the print run soon sold out and the rights reverted to me. The reprint has a beautiful cover (in which, yes, I did have a say) featuring the Old Well in Chapel Hill where the book is set, placards to suggest the civil rights movement, and the words “A Novel” prominently displayed. Over the years, The Activist’s Daughter has become a perennial reading group selection for readers interested in the ‘60s. I’m convinced the new cover helped.
Most book covers are neither beautiful nor disastrous, even with glitches that can be maddening for the author. The protagonist of Over 50’s Singles Night is named BJ Fradkin – except on the cover, where she became BJ Franklin.The pastel pink cover of Raspberry Sherbet Kisses features lovers kissing while standing in an oversized fruit bowl – so sweet that one reviewer said the novel is light but not that light (about a woman trying to hide the fact that she sees music and tastes shapes – as some people really do). The sales impact? I’ll never know.
If a book is a big seller, the publisher will sometimes correct errors on the next printing. But if sales are low and the writer is unhappy? In today’s digital environment, most books are also e-books, which can stay “in print” indefinitely at little cost to the publisher, which generally opts to hold on to rights rather than reverting them.
Often, the best a writer can hope for is an editor sensitive to the visual journey readers take before deciding whether to open the book and embark on the literary one. It makes a huge difference.
My 1992 novel, Festival in Fire Season, has just come out as an e-book. So when the publisher asked me to look through it after the (very old) files were converted, I found myself reading it for the first time in twenty years.
Festival in Fire Season is about three people in a small beach town who get caught up in a raging wildfire that comes through during the annual Azalea Festival. A Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection when it was first published, it was inspired by real fires that swept through coastal North Carolina in the mid-1980’s – and that scared me badly when the flames were burning at the end of the block and I was home without a car, with my four children and two nieces.
What critics liked most about the book were the fire scenes.
But oh! Even two decades later, I remember all too well what a project it was to write them.
One of the main characters in the book is a firefighter. He battles some house fires early on, and at the end has to deal with the swiftly-approaching forest fire. Making those scenes authentic and exciting was the key to the success of the book.
I knew nothing about firefighting – just that I was afraid of fires. This was before Internet research was an option. I read one book by a NY city firefighter but found few others. I interviewed several local firefighters, including one who had been in charge of operations during our terrible wildfires. They were all enormously helpful. They lent me training tapes to watch. Explained how heavy the hoses can be when they’re charged with water. Told me their secret – not sanctioned, but effective – for clearing their face masks when they fogged up. In time, I had enough technical information to work with.
But what I wanted was a sense of what it’s like, emotionally, to fight a fire. What it looks like, what it feels like, in a visceral way.
This, I discovered, would be much harder to come by.
My firefighter contacts, macho-men all, were knowledgeable, skillful, helpful in a myriad of ways – but emotional? No. It seemed a source of pride with them to describe even the most devastating fires in the flattest possible language.
What was it like?
Oh, we knocked it down in about ten minutes.
Oh, it was goin’ pretty good when we got there.
Oh, it was kind of nasty. But we got hold of it.
Were you ever scared?
Oh, yeah. Sure.
End of discussion.
At a loss, having exhausted the good will of the firefighters and the resources of the county library, I drove out to the university, expecting to find more of the same. But among the “more of the same” was an old book – very old – that contained various accounts of the devastating but nearly-forgotten Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin, that consumed more than a million acres of land and killed more than a thousand people. The librarian presented me with a volume that shouldn’t have been in circulation at all – dusty, tattered, and certainly rare. But no one seemed concerned, so I carried it home and found . . . everything
Back in the 1870s, there was no telephone service, no email, no TV, nothing to ease the linguistic task of describing the direct experience of a devastating fire. And so there it was, in many renditions, in the rich, evocative language of the times, the horror and (to my surprise) the beauty, of a terrible wildfire.
From those accounts, I learned how sap could hiss as it turned to steam, how flames could hurl themselves into the night, “screeching and cackling, a Halloween beast sending out curling wisps of smoke,” how two walls of fire could become a “sudden last fountain of light” before the two fires canceled each other out.
I learned how to juxtapose those descriptions with modern ones, as when a boy watching a fire yells to his friend, “The ultimate fireworks, man!”
And so grew the novel.
It shouldn’t have taken me so long to find my sources. I had read Civil War letters and diaries; I must have known that the vibrant language I was seeking would be in accounts from a hundred years before. Today, you can read all about the Peshtigo Fire on Wikipedia – and no doubt many other places. But if you’re ever looking for the true language of something folks want to mute and subdue, along with their fears, I suspect you’ll find it right where it’s always been, burning in the flame-lit annals of the past.