Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: James Michener, The Freelance Professor

1. James Michener’s novels are like Gideon Bibles: they pop up everywhere and no one seems to read them from cover to cover. I myself hadn’t read one until very recently, which is remarkable, because I seem to have been born knowing the author’s name. I doubt there was a time in my life when I could not tell you the title of at least one Michener novel; I even remember the first time I almost finished a page of one: I was in my 20s, staying at a cheap hotel in Kunming in the mid-90s. There wasn’t much of a library in the lobby, but there was plenty of Michener. I took down a tattered copy of Hawaii (or was it Poland?) from the flimsy wicker bookstand, but the words started swimming before I could finish the first page. Back then I gave myself over to long novels only if I believed they would change my life (Tolstoy) or alter my mind (Pynchon). When it came to serious investments of reading time, I preferred no-doubt-about-it recommendations over my own theoretical ability to take serious pleasure in unintended masterpieces, like a Roland Barthes wannabe (I might have been able to decode a cereal box as a lyric poem, but I wasn’t willing to read the entire Yellow Pages as though it were an epic). No one ever told me to read Michener on account of its literary merit either, and on the few other occasions I tried to read him up until last year -- in airports, barber shops, even a dentist’s office -- I felt like I was wasting time on something with questionable payoff, even as a form of escapism—precious time I could be spending on the Koran or re-reading Proust. 2. During a recent visit to Greeley, Colorado — the town on which Michener based Centennial in his novel of the same name — I told my uncle, who has lived there his entire life, about my new determination to read Michener. Re: Centennial, his response was swift: “Skip all the bullshit about evolution and research.” I appreciated the frankness, but didn’t tell him that I actually liked the bullshit about how the Rocky Mountains had replaced a much older range. The Rockies are therefore very young and should never be thought of as ancient. They are still in the process of building and eroding, and no one today can calculate what they will look like ten million years from now. They have the extravagant beauty of youth, the allure of adolescence, and they are mountains to be loved. Nor did I mention my fondness for the novel’s narrative frame, in which a high-profile magazine in Manhattan pays a celebrated history professor a large sum of money to conduct anonymous research for a feature article on the Platte River. I liked the frame because it doubled as a commentary on fiction writing, Michener-style. It goes like this: the happy learned scholar wows the savvy publishers with maverick story-telling. They accept his reports without question. These  reports, which comprise the chapters of the novel, demonstrate the professor’s, and Michener’s, ability to formulate the minutia of local history into sweeping narratives about the injustices (and occasional justices) committed by settlers and the U.S. government against native tribes along the front range of the Rockies. In his instructions to the editors at the end of each chapter, the professor doubles down on his fine-grained knowledge, which is all a part of his mission to get things right. Please, please make your artist exercise restraint in illustrating this section. I have studied forty-seven photographs of groups of cowboys in the years 1867-68-69, and not one appears in chaps, tapaderos, or exaggerated hat. All wear working clothes, plus high-heeled boots, and bandanna. Another cliché narrowly avoided, seems to be the message. I imagine the well-meaning fictional editors back in New York cherishing the preemptive correction about cowboy apparel as though it were a nugget of truth—dug up by a man for whom minor details mean everything. For they are in the presence of the real deal, the irrepressible teacher. Michener did in fact have a sense of how such fictional editors in the New York publishing industry might have dealt with this narrator. Prior to volunteering for the Navy in World War II, he worked as a textbook editor at Macmillan. Perhaps like the bold narrator in Centennial, he himself worked the system of trade publishing without sacrificing his social and intellectual principles. 3. My uncle went on to warn me about specific historical inaccuracies in Centennial. He knew his stuff. While a reporter for the Greeley-Tribune, he had written a column about the area’s local history and, in the late 70s, even worked as an extra in NBC’s made-for-TV-movie adaptation of the novel. The non-fiction is better, he told me; read Report of the County Chairman. I haven’t yet read Michener’s account of traveling with JFK on the presidential campaign trail, but my uncle’s warning had the effect of making me study the novels I was reading more seriously: I couldn’t just ride along without wishing to corroborate what I was reading. I wanted to know what was made up, and why. Michener does make things up, and I don’t always know enough about the places described in his stories to judge when he is being cavalier, or misleading; but this no longer matters much to me. His novels became worth my while when I considered their author not an authority with the final word — on Colorado, Afghanistan, or the Caribbean — but a thoughtful yet flawed university lecturer, whose approach to sweeping historical tales is capacious enough to allow and encourage me to think things through on my own. (And for that, they need to be long.) Now I think of Michener’s novels as efficiently designed college courses in the humanities. And who knows? Maybe big novels written expressly to educate and engage the imagination can already accomplish what the coming onslaught of online courses will attempt to do. Maybe we need to turn to historical novels and other yet-to-be created expository fiction composed by gifted writers, not virtual classrooms built by techie educators. Fiction can teach without being didactic, but maybe this comes easier to authors who’ve been on the planet for more than two or three decades. 4. Michener wrote plenty before Tales of the South Pacific, his debut novel at age 40, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. At the University of Northern Colorado in the 1930s he wrote articles that only a social scientist with Keats running around in his head could write. Co-ed sex education was one of his subjects, but so was using music in the social sciences. The quirky title of one article he published, "Bach and Sugar Beets," argued that music could open up rural students to new ideas about agriculture. It sounds like the kind of catchy course title now on offer at Harvard, where, incidentally, Michener taught and pursued a Ph.D. in history after studying at the University of St. Andrews and majoring in the multidisciplinary Honors Program at Swarthmore. But before Tales of the South Pacific, he had published only one piece of fiction, a short story called, “Who is Virgil T. Fry?” More of a personal manifesto than anything else, the story features a high school teacher whose messy imagination freaks out the other teachers and the principal, but wins the hearts and minds of his students. The teacher gets canned for being too good. An assessment of Michener’s growth as a fiction writer before Tales of the South Pacific depends on how you define fiction. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he wrote plenty of narratives about what he saw and heard. That was part of his job as jack-of-all trades intelligence messenger. But everything changed when an admiral ordered him to Bora Bora to make a report on why the enlisted men on the island refused to go home. A color photo of the island’s limpid waters and coconut palms is explanation enough for me, but Michener conducted extensive interviews and dutifully typed out the kind of sprawling explanation found in his subsequent novels.  In his investigation, he went well beyond the call of duty -- for incipient writerly reasons -- and saved for himself the beaches and coconuts, not to mention the proud Tonkinese women and decadent French plantation owners. These things would figure into Tales of the South Pacific, which he mailed to Knopf in a waterproof package several months later. Michener’s laurels might never have sprouted from this military reporting had it not been for two life-changing events. The first was an impromptu forgery: at the very end of his long awful voyage from San Francisco to the South Pacific, he and another rookie lieutenant snuck into the captain’s quarters and found documents detailing their next assignments. The other lieutenant, a stockbroker in civilian life, knew Michener to be a man in love with travel and so brazenly fabricated, right then and there, a document authorizing him to travel throughout the Pacific’s military zones on vague but empowering “tours of inspection.”  I get a whiff of tall tale-telling here in Michener’s memoir, but not because I think he made up the story. I’m just not so sure he didn’t forge the document himself. The other life-changing event started to unfold when a plane taking Michener to New Caledonia had trouble landing. On the third attempt in worsening visibility, the pilot narrowly succeeded with little fuel left in the tank. The miracle rattled Michener. Unable to sleep that night, he wandered around in a tense stupor until he found himself back on the airstrip. He walked up and down for a long time, and, after growing calm, his thoughts lifted him into those bright skies of self-reckoning. What was he to do with the rest of his life? Did he really want to return to his job as an editor of textbooks and a life of professional competence? He silenced these questions by swearing an oath: “I’m going to live the rest of my life as if I were a great man.” He had no idea what he meant. 5. I’ve learned to expect the grand outburst from Michener. They come like little fountains of emotion in long stretches of exposition, and so they’re welcome, like a stern teacher’s occasional joke. In Caravans, his novel about Afghanistan in the 1950s, such eruptive oases recall Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky but without the sense of foreboding that makes everything seem so desperate. We went into the night and for the first time in my life I saw the stars hanging low over the desert, for the atmosphere above us contained no moisture, no dust, no impediment of any kind. It was probably the cleanest air man knows and it displayed the stars as no other could. Not even at Quala Bist, which stood by the river, had air been so pure. The stars seemed enormous. As he rhapsodizes in superlatives, the narrator, a novice U.S. diplomat, is following the trail of a proto-hippie American woman who has left her American-educated, Afghani husband for a noble Bedouin chief. But Caravans is also a page-turning fable about the monumental proportions of freedom, American-style. Every character in Caravans wants to be great, and Michener is generous enough to let their successes and failures stand without sizing up the moral legitimacy of the motivating desire. I doubt Michener ever settled on a definition of greatness for himself or his characters. Even in his own airstrip epiphany, it’s clear he wasn’t going after greatness for its own sake. That would be too easy. What he really got into was the creative thrill of faking it ‘til he made it. A restless man giddy with the excitement of making his life count, he walked away from the airstrip with a heightened awareness of everything and everyone around him. The typewriter in his Quonset hut turned into the ballast he needed to sort things out. And the ballast felt particularly good when an enlistee who passed the time making necklaces out of seashells read Michener’s stuff and told him it wasn’t bad, not bad at all. A reporter still, Michener had a new beat: the fictional version of his life. And so it remained until his 80s when he wrote his autobiography, appropriately titled The World Is My Home. 6. Not bad at all. That’s what I thought when I went to the Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado and stood in front of a wall displaying the bright covers of 42 books by the author after passing a case displaying his dentures. Such prolific output is inspiring if only as a monument to persistence (even after factoring in the teams of supporting researchers he employed once his books became bestsellers). Only a Michenerologist would be able to tell you something specific about each of those books, not to mention the many others he published. Altogether he wrote 26 novels, and I’m certainly no such specialist, but from what I’ve read so far I can recommend Michener to the insomniac fan of marathon historical fiction who doesn’t mind being told and not shown. Michener is an unrepentant teller with little appetite for showmanship. Especially in his early fiction, he has the tendency to lead by the nose, like a zealous and patronizing adjunct. Take for example the way he drops two characters into Tales of the South Pacific with the grand blandness of abstraction: Hers was the heart-hunger that has sent people of all ages in search of new thoughts and deeper perceptions. Yet at the end of a year in Navy life Nellie had found only one person who shared her longing for ideas and experience. It was Dinah Culbert. She and Dinah had a lust for sensations, ideas, and the web of experience. She and Dinah were realists, but of that high order which includes symbolism and some things just beyond the reach of pure intelligence. I dig these gals, but only on faith because I have no idea which specific colors stripe their potentially bright rainbows. And so I forget them. But such narrative explanation can be comforting when it helps keep you on track of the many subplots he lays out like a compulsive scholar whose curiosity has broken loose. Reading Michener and liking it in the 21st century requires tolerance for the ambivalence it inspires. I may have cringed at his attempts to capture Japanese-accented English in Sayonara (“You be good man not tell anyone you love Hana-ogi. She make very dangerous come Osaka for you”), but read on, because I recognized that he wanted to teach me what he knew about American-occupied Japan. I also rolled my eyes at his fetishistic idealizations of Japanese women in the same novel: For women in love there could be no garment more entrancing than the kimono. As I watched Hana-ogi, I realized that in the future, when even the memory of our occupation has grown dim, a quarter of a million American men will love all women more for having tenderly watched some golden-skinned girl fold herself into the shimmering beauty of a kimono. In memory of her feminine grace, all women will forever seem more feminine. But I tolerated this objectifying megalo-kimono-philia long enough to realize the larger story was a surprisingly nuanced meditation on the vicissitudes of mixed-race relationships in the fraught political climate of military occupation, in this case between a Japanese woman and an American man. The lovers risk rejection from their respective communities on account of racial prejudice — the woman from her theatrical troupe in Takarazuka that prohibits dating any man and especially an American; and the American lieutenant from the elite military he was born to marry into. In Tales of the South Pacific, Centennial, and Caravans too, Michener’s mission was to shine a light on the changing forms of racism; but in the case of Sayonara, the sheer cheesiness of the romance and the touches of what some readers will call Orientalism will no doubt cloud that mission, which is something that the overblown film adaptations of the novels only make worse. So maybe Michener was indeed a flawed teacher, his oeuvre a dense curriculum of introductory courses about the Jews, Alaska, and even outer space. His attempt to present all sides of the story in an evenhanded way is noble and naïve, certainly old-school professorial and occasionally pedantic. His prose is more sugar beet than Bach, more social scientist than artist, but like any good teacher, it inspires you to take a seat in the middle of the world like it’s your own personal classroom. That’s why I plan to read more Michener. Some may consider him a mass-market hack, but he’s also an untiring muse who doesn’t care if I nod off to sleep during lecture, just as long as my hand shoots up with questions at the end of class. Image via the author
Post-40 Bloomers

Tillie Olsen and the Writing of Fiction

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Tillie Olsen will be the featured author throughout the week. Sometime in the seventies, in a dilapidated New Haven bookstore I picked up a paperback copy of Tell Me A Riddle, Tillie Olsen’s collection of four short stories. The book had been celebrated when it came out in 1961, but I hadn’t known about it. I was the mother of young children, beginning to publish poems. I wanted to write fiction, but couldn’t. Tillie Olsen’s stories (and Grace Paley’s, which I discovered at around the same time) turned me into a fiction writer, as if they pointed to a door in what had looked like a blank wall—a door to which, as it turned out, I owned a key. I thought then that short stories weren’t an interesting form, but I had read few of them, and almost none by contemporary American women. I associated short stories with tight plots and surprising endings that affected the reader intellectually more than emotionally. The four stories I now read by Tillie Olsen, about ordinary life — children, parents, old people, black and white people trying to lead lives that included one another, people worrying about money, people whose friendships were strained by human weakness and societal pressures — did not have surprising endings, only endings that showed how the difficult truths that the author had laid out were even more true than you might have expected, but that love was also more possible than you might have thought. Tillie Olsen’s characters had faults. They were likelier to say the wrong thing than the right. They hurt one another. But nobody disappeared permanently from anybody else’s life. Like the family I grew up in — my parents were the children of immigrant secular Jews, like some of Olsen’s characters and like Tillie Olsen herself — they said the unspeakable to one another, and continued going about their business together, wounded or not. Moreover, Olsen’s stories were political without being preachy, without sacrificing the particular person to the general truth. They are as strong today as when they first came out. They have psychological precision, musical language that reveals feeling and experience by entering into a character’s sensory experience, and political ferocity expressed in plausible generalizations from the experience of intensely real men and women. Here’s the opening of “Hey Sailor, What Ship?”: The grimy light; the congealing smell of cigarettes that had been smoked long ago and of liquor that had been drunk long ago; the boasting, cursing, wheedling, cringing voices, and the greasy feel of the bar as he gropes for his glass. “He” is Whitey, a Merchant Marine on shore leave, trying to get himself sufficiently under control to reach the house of the old friends who deplore his drunkenness and despair but let him in. I’d never before seen a story about that kind of friendship, but in my own life I’d known some of them — friendships that are mostly painful, hard to justify to skeptical onlookers, but indispensable. “O Yes,” also about friendship, begins with a young girl and her mother, “the only white people there, sitting in the dimness of the Negro church that had once been a corner store, and all through the bubbling, swelling, seething of before the services, twelve-year-old Carol clenches tight her mother’s hand, the other resting lightly on her friend, Parialee Phillips, for whose baptism she has come.” The story is about two girls, one black and one white, whose friendship is destroyed as they become teenagers by the differing expectations of teachers, the pressure of their friends, and the contrasting lives they live because of poverty and race. Even now, decades later, I’ve read few stories, especially by white people, about the stresses of black and white friendship — as opposed to stories about black servants and white employers. Those two stories are my favorites, though the others are more anthologized and famous. The first story in the book is “I Stand Here Ironing,” in which a mother ironing clothes outlines, in an imaginary conversation with a social worker or guidance counselor, the obstacles in herself and in her life that kept her from caring properly for her oldest child — who, she hopes, will at least learn “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” The last story — almost a novella — is “Tell Me A Riddle,” about the dying of a passionately political old woman who was an imprisoned Russian radical in her youth and cannot relax, ever; her husband, who just wants to move to someplace comfortable and live out their remaining time peacefully; and the granddaughter who nurses the old woman and makes the couple behave like human beings, forcing them to become the old lovers they still are by rejecting any other view of them except as people who love and are loved. The paperback I read, back in the seventies, had no cover. Later I learned that when you bought a paperback without a cover, it meant that the author and publisher were being deprived of money: booksellers tore off covers and returned them to publishers for refunds, and they were supposed to discard the books. But if Tillie Olsen had known how I came by her stories, I don’t think she’d have objected. A Communist when she was young — she was born in 1912 and was in her twenties during the Great Depression — she was a lefty all her life and, apparently, took delight in almost any disruption of established order. In her last decades she was a vocal feminist who regularly used more than her allotted time as a public speaker, and jumped from subject to subject, resisting all demands — benign or not — for coherence and logic. Her passionate speeches about feminism and the thirties inspired many. When she was invited to Yale, a mile away from my house, I heard her speak. She spontaneously sang “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and I was smitten. She died in 2007. Her biographer, Panthea Reid (Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles), provides useful and fascinating information, but disapproves of her subject. Tillie Olsen wasn’t truthful, regularly fictionalizing her experience. Her extreme disorganization and heedlessness sometimes did harm. And like the regretful mother in “I Stand Here Ironing,” she didn’t take good care of her first child. Reid still manages to show that Tillie Olsen was a splendid, larger-than-life woman, and that many people forgave her faults, finding a great deal in her to love. Tillie Olsen was forty-nine when Tell Me a Riddle was published. After writing the stories in it and publishing them in journals, Olsen won lucrative grants and fellowships. Publishers twice gave her contracts for novels (back in the thirties, Bennett Cerf, at Random House, worked hard to get her to write, and provided over a thousand dollars as an advance to support her meanwhile). Olsen repeatedly told her publishers she was almost done with a novel, but she never completed one, or any stories except for those four. She promised to write, accepted money to write, but didn’t write. Reid describes these periods as if Tillie Olsen was making irresponsible choices, but any reader who has tried writing a novel will guess how much pain she must have felt. Olsen did write part of a novel. It was lost among her papers, found forty years later, and published, when the author was in her sixties, as Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Its harrowing, gorgeous, sensitively written chapters recount the childhood of Mazie Holbrook. Her father works in the Wyoming mines, then becomes a tenant farmer whose large family nearly starves. He finds work digging in the sewers, where the men are forced to work more quickly than is safe, and finally he gets a job in a slaughterhouse, where he is in danger from scalding water. The story is an indictment of injustice, callousness, and lack of opportunity, a chronicle of the Great Depression — and also a sharply observed account of kids growing up. It is even more fervent in its outrage than Tell Me a Riddle, but no less exact and irrresisitible in depicting life moment by moment. It breaks off at page 132 with a note from Olsen that starts, “Reader, it was not to have ended here.” Tillie Olsen’s only other book was Silences, published in 1978. I still have the hardcover edition I bought for $10.95 when the book was published: I didn’t deprive Tillie Olsen of all the royalties I owed her. Silences consists of quotations, lists, transcripts of talks. It includes an essay about Rebecca Harding Davis that Olsen wrote for a reprint of Davis’s nineteenth-century novel Life in the Iron Mills. In disconnected or partly connected paragraphs and footnotes, Silences argues that life as we’ve known it through most of history discourages writers — especially women — from writing. It looks at all the reasons women have failed to write and publish over the centuries, from the need to take care of children, to biased reviewers, to lack of confidence and emotional breakdowns. Olsen barely mentions her own situation, but it becomes clear that when she did have enough time and money to write, she simply couldn’t. We learn from her biography that she worked full time as an activist for the Communist Party for years, including the years when Bennett Cerf was waiting for his novel. It must have been hard to believe that she could do more for the world by sitting alone writing and rewriting paragraphs than by going out and fighting for social change. Also, my guess is that Tillie Olsen didn’t know how to write a novel — it’s not obvious — and resisted the consecutive thinking it would require. She had no one to talk with — either in a formal class or in friendship with other novelists — about just how writers plan, shape, and complete novels. She wrote the four stories in Tell Me A Riddle, in fact, when she was allowed to audit a creative writing class, taught by Arthur Foff, which one of her daughters attended. He encouraged her, told her about writing fellowships at Stanford, and urged her to apply. She won a fellowship and was helped further by a teacher there, Richard Scowcroft. But still couldn’t produce a novel. A novelist friend told me recently that she was thrilled to come upon Silences when it was published. My recollection is that I didn’t like it. I wanted more fiction from Tillie Olsen, not an explanation of why there wouldn’t be any. And Silences was alarming. When it came out I had three children under the age of eight and had published no books. It did offer a little bit of hope, finding some cause for optimism in the accomplishments of the women’s movement. It still must have been difficult for me to believe, reading it, that I could write and publish when so many couldn’t. But I did write and publish stories and novels, partly because of what I learned from Tillie Olsen’s work. She wrote so little, but she did write those forthright, honest, unsentimental stories about city life and family life in an imperfect society. Living her politics, she wrote with keen attention and respect about people and situations that might have seemed too insignificant for fiction. Decades later, I am still trying to emulate the courage in those four stories. For more on Tillie Olsen, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: Samuel Richardson, Persuading Pamela

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Samuel Richardson—writer, printer, author of the 1740 bestseller Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded—often told a couple of stories about his school years. He liked to relate how, though not a stellar student, he was popular for his ability to spin a yarn: “I recollect that I was early noted for having invention. I was not fond of play, as other boys; my school-fellows used to call me Serious and Gravity; and five of them particularly delighted to single me out, either for a walk, or at their father’s houses, or at mine, to tell them stories, as they phrased it. Some I told them, from my reading, as true; others from my head, as mere invention; of which they would be most fond, and often were affected by them.” Another tale, also possibly apocryphal, involved his favor with the neighborhood’s young women—although not for the reasons you might think. At thirteen he was not of an age to be wooing the daughters of the local gentry, but he did have a reputation for turning a nice phrase, and they often sought his advice in answering their love letters: “…these young women, unknown to each other, having a high opinion of my taciturnity, revealed to me their love-secrets, in order to induce me to give them copies to write after, or correct, for answers to their lover’s letters.” It’s an engaging thought that the man who would become famous almost forty years later for writing Pamela—a novel in letters of a young woman struggling with a love affair—would have spent his early days surrounded by young women, helping them write their own love letters. Such a story at least ought to be true, which is perhaps why Richardson—usually notoriously vague on the subject of his childhood—was careful to tell it. 2. Samuel Richardson was already in his fifties, a successful London printer whose contracts included printing official reports for the House of Commons and several daily newspapers, when two bookseller friends first approached him about producing “a little volume of Letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers, who were unable to indite [sic] for themselves.” Up to that point, Richardson’s life had been that of an industrious middle-class craftsman. The son of a joiner—a carpenter specializing in finished woodwork—he had some schooling, although not the intense classical instruction preferred by the era’s educated circles. With little family money, no obvious patronage to support his “storytelling,” and neither the talent nor inclination for woodworking, in 1706 he apprenticed himself to a London printer named John Wilde. Richardson did well in Wilde’s shop, rising to oversee operations. He married Wilde’s daughter, scraping up the funds to start his own print shop, and by 1722 was successful enough to take on his own apprentices. Eighteenth century London was ripe with opportunity for a printer. Literacy was on the rise. The middle class—people with some leisure to read—was growing in both numbers and influence. Pamphleteering was the Internet of the era, and everyone with something to say needed a printer to help them say it. Alongside political tracts, booksellers found a high demand for nonfiction, especially of the instructional variety. Housekeeping handbooks, etiquette guides, gardening manuals, books on treatments for various illnesses, books on improving one’s memory, treatises on how to live a good and righteous life—self-help, it turns out, is a favorite subject no matter what the era. One of the first books Samuel Richardson ever wrote was a manual for apprentices on how they should conduct themselves. (He advised them to avoid the theater, taverns, and gambling.) So it wasn’t entirely unusual for a couple of booksellers, sensing a potential market, to suggest to Richardson, a successful printer known for his way with words, that he pen a book on the art of letter-writing. What was unusual was the result of the endeavor, a wholly new kind of novel: Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded. An epistolary tale written as a series of letters from a young servant girl to her parents, Pamela is the story of the eponymous heroine who, finding herself the object of her master’s unwanted attentions, resists his advances and repeated seductions until he at last consents to marry her properly. She then assents to his proposal and the two live happily ever after—that is, once Pamela’s virtue, beauty, humility, and good sense win over those members of her husband’s family who object to his marrying so far below his station. Modern readers might be somewhat amused to learn that this bodice-ripper is regarded as one of the early examples of “realistic” fiction. Is there any plot less true to life than the lord of the manor marrying his serving girl? Pure fantasy that, albeit a lucrative one for a writer or bookseller. But Pamela’s realism has little to do with the plausibility of the story. It lies, instead, in the novel’s scope and language. Richardson, and some of his literary colleagues like Daniel Defoe, were writing stories not based on rehashed plots from mythology, Biblical parables, or ancient epics, but instead wholly invented and entirely contemporary. The language was deliberately casual, rather than poetic. “I thought,” Richardson would later say when asked about how he came to write Pamela, “the story, if written in an easy and natural manner, suitably to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue.” Usually when a writer starts talking about “a new species of writing,” we gird ourselves for something opaque and avant-garde. Richardson’s novel was certainly experimental, but the experiment was in bringing literature down, so to speak, to the level of the everyday. Pamela herself is a working girl (in the literal sense of the word). She has good principles, but no resources. Her most valued possession is her virtue, and her highest ambition is to not shame her mother and father by losing it. Her one conceit is an addiction to “scribbling”—as her frustrated seducer calls her constant letter-writing. Pamela’s language is simple and straightforward. So simple, in fact that some readers complained of her “coarseness” in early editions, and Richardson would continually refine her language in later printings. Her letters home were filled with both accounts of her trials and detailed descriptions of her day: “I had a pretty good Camlet quilted Coat, that I thought might do tolerably well; and I bought two Flannel Under-coats, not so good as my Swan-skin and fine Linen ones; but what would keep me warm, if any Neighbor should get me to go out to help ‘em to milk.” It is a wonder, wrote one critic, that we are not told the exact number of pins Pamela had about her, and how many could be bought for a penny. Richardson wrote Pamela in a flurry of productive energy, beginning, according to his own account, on the 10th of November, 1740, and finishing exactly three months later. As he completed each new section, he gave it to his wife and her friends to read—his own personal focus group for the novel’s target audience. Because the morally conservative, professionally ambitious Samuel Richardson had a definite goal for his “new species of writing”: he wanted the book to sell. And he knew that even then, as now, women bought fiction. 3. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Pamela must be regarded as one of the most successful novels of all time. It spawned a flood of both imitators and satirical “anti-Pamelas,” as well as a plethora of unauthorized “sequels” that purported to continue the story of the love between Pamela and her Mr. B.—“fan fiction” has apparently always been with us. One of the best and most hilarious satires was Henry Fielding’s Shamela—a riff on the novel that started a literary “war” between Fielding and Richardson that may or may not have been staged (historians are divided on the subject), but did have an excellent impact on the sales of both authors’ books. (“O,” moans Shamela as she feigns a faint in response to her suitor’s attempt to get her clothes off, “what a Difficulty it is to keep one’s Countenance, when a violent Laugh desires to burst forth.”) Richardson himself wrote a couple of sequels, which flopped; Pamela, in these later works, demonstrated a tedious habit of talking philosophy. The moralizing that could be endured for the sake of the original’s more salacious plot was insupportable on its own. And salacious it is. If the book’s wide appeal was founded on the fact that every female reader saw herself as the virtuous Pamela, they were also deliciously shocked and scandalized by the trials she faces and the advances she must defend herself against. Mr. B., the young, impetuous master of the house who is hell-bent on seducing this servant girl, is not at all circumspect. He traps her in a garden and puts his hand down her dress. He molests her whenever he can get her alone—which, since he is master of the house, is whenever he likes. He hides in her bedroom closet and watches her undress. He attempts to get into bed with her and rape her, even though the housekeeper is watching. When Pamela begs to be sent home, he kidnaps her, imprisons her at another estate under the guard of a leering woman who continually urges her to just give in and let the master have his way with her. He tries to purchase her favors with money, making promises to aid her poverty-stricken parents followed by vague threats about what might happen to them if she doesn’t give in. He fires, ruins, or arrests anyone who tries to help Pamela out of her predicament. He even concocts a plan to hold a sham marriage with a false priest. After all this, it is something of an about-face when Mr. B., defeated by Pamela’s steadfast refusal to compromise her virtue, insists that his passion has turned to love and offers to marry her for real. And for the modern reader, Pamela’s happy acquiescence is inexplicable: “Well I will, I think, trust in his Generosity! Yet is it not too great a Trust? —especially considering how I have been used! But then that was while he vow’d his bad Designs; and now he gives me great Hope of his good ones.” In other words, Mr. B. has changed. Even better, she has been the one to change him—the secret hope and desire of every woman ever trapped in a bad relationship. No wonder Pamela was so popular. 4. In his excellent book The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt suggests that Richardson wrote Pamela as both an indictment against the state of marriage in an England rife with clandestine, sham, and “Scottish” unions (Scotland being the favorite destination for eloping couples since the age of consent there was only sixteen, and parental permissions were not required), and as an illustration of the ideal married state: one based on mutual respect, virtue, and most importantly, openly proclaimed and legal proceedings. England in the mid-18th century suffered from a surfeit of unmarried women, while men were marrying later and later—ostensibly because it wasn’t proper to start a family until one could afford to keep one, but in reality because, as the 17th-century Christian writer John Bunyan so eloquently put it, “Who would keep a Cow of their own, that can have a quart of milk for a penny?” The birthrate of illegitimate children was skyrocketing. Richardson, a man who liked to make moral arguments in print, attacked the dissolute state of English matrimony with the capable and forthright pen of Pamela. And it is here, perhaps, that Pamela becomes “realistic” to a modern reader, emerging as a real woman amidst the moral lessons and unlikely romancing. As powerless as this servant girl is against the forces arrayed against her, as bereft she may be of either the physical strength to resist an assault or the financial resources needed to flee, she does have one thing—her voice. Pamela will not shut up. It drives her licentious Mr. B. to absolute distraction. She has an answer for every improper advance he makes, a pithy response to every debauched attempt upon her person. He accuses her of being “saucy”—a word with more serious implications than it has now—and “a slut,” which at the time meant something like a bold hussy, not a girl who slept around. But Pamela is not to be silenced: “And what is left me but Words?” she asks, again and again to anyone in hearing distance. “And can these Words be other than such strong ones, as shall shew the Detestation, which, from the Bottom of my Heart, I have for every Attempt upon my Virtue?” Throughout the story Pamela makes several attempts to escape her captivity, which are usually thwarted by her unfortunate tendency to faint when frightened. The one thing in which she is always successful, however, is procuring pen and paper. In the end, it is all the armor she needs. Samuel Richardson would go on to write two more successful novels: Clarissa in 1748—all 900,000 words of it regarded on its publication as his “masterpiece”—and The History of Sir Charles Grandison in 1753, which he purportedly wrote in response to reader demands for a “male Pamela.” By this point, however, he was in poor health. While he continued to write, most of his energy was spent on nurturing and mentoring other writers. He famously rescued Samuel Johnson from a near brush with debtor’s prison, earning that author’s eternal gratitude. Richardson also went to great effort to support women writers, including Sarah Fielding, the sister of Henry Fielding, suggesting that the supposed rivalry between Richardson and Fielding was an amicable one. By the time of his death in 1761, Richardson had abandoned writing epistolary novels in favor of writing real letters to his many friends. His collected correspondence is staggering. Even so, it is in the voice of an impassioned young woman, not of a wise old man, that Richardson will be remembered.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Shannon Cain will be the featured author throughout the week. 1. Shannon Cain will never be convicted of excessive reverence. My father is a literature professor, retired. Emeritus. Charles Dickens was the genius at the center of my childhood. If Dickens were alive and in need of a baggage handler or someone to suck his dick, my dad would have been the man for the job.  (from “The Nigerian Princes”) This penchant for the subversive syllogism is one of the many pleasures of Cain's story collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, which won Pittsburgh Press's Drue Heinz Prize for 2011. Making her debut in her early forties, Cain came to fiction writing via an energetic first act that included political activism, work for philanthropies and non-profit organizations, and parenting. She's also the recipient of an NEA grant, and with Lisa Bowden, the co-editor of Powder, a book of writings by women military veterans. The title of Cain’s story collection is polymorphously suggestive, teasing the reader into attempted decodings in reaction to the individual stories. Some of my attempts: "The awkward pressure of domestic arrangements." "The revelatory power of embarrassing situations." In its context in the title story, the phrase has to do with a character's complicity in her own idealization, but the collection invites us to think about the title more expansively. In an interview for Arizona Public Media, Cain asserts she writes about people living on the margins of society, not necessarily the economic or racial margins, but the behavioral ones. She's interested in people who make decisions which get them into trouble. 2. Often, both the behavior and the trouble are sexual in nature, and sexual politics are one of the collection's major concerns. Cain describes herself as "a proud feminist-leftist bisexual loudmouth," whose literary models are James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, and Nadine Gordimer. However, the collection is anything but polemic. Instead it's gentle, compassionate, and funny. It's not driven by a sense of grievance or injustice, but by a politics of empathy, and what it offers us is not indictment of how things are so much as an alternate vision of how things might be. It's not fiction that makes a political argument, but fiction that reifies a political vision. What my family used to say about my grandmother goes equally well for Cain. She never fights: she only conquers. Perhaps because the first and last stories are about women energetically playing both sides of the field, bisexuality has a strong enough presence in the book to push the reader towards thinking about it as metaphor. In literature, bisexuality often signals the writer's interest in notions of androgyny, gender confusion, or flexible identity. That's not Cain's beat: she's interested in inclusion, in what might be declared in-bounds for any or all of us. She's less about sexual Independence Day than sexual Christmas morning. Cain also cites Kurt Vonnegut as an influence, and it's easy to think that she's ringing changes on Welcome to the Monkey House in a number of places. The Necessity of Certain Behaviors works the second wave of the sexual revolution of the sixties chronicled by Vonnegut. Cain shares Vonnegut's love of deflating the pompous, as seen in the quote at the top, from the story "The Nigerian Princes." Cain also shares Vonnegut's love of social topsy-turvydom. For example, in the same story, the narrator uses his best male friend as a reverse beard, pretending that they are lovers (he is in fact heterosexual) in order to keep his parents from pestering him for the grandchildren. "The Queer Zoo" takes topsy-turvydom a step further: There's no actual policy at the Queer Zoo against hiring straight people; that would be illegal. Sam is alert to rumors about the existence of other hetero employees, but so far none have turned out to be true. Sam cleans cages. Primates, birds, elephants. No, not cages: enclosures. At the Queer Zoo, the word "cage" is forbidden. Sam's girlfriend, Teri, says he underestimates his coworkers, that he ought to come out, already, that they're more open-minded than he gives them credit for. But it would be absurd, after all this time, to admit he isn't gay. One of Sam's charges is to care for a group of Bonobos, the subspecies of chimpanzee famous for their bisexuality. But the chimps are not presented as an object lessons in ideal behavior: anything but. Instead, Sam begins to feel protective of the one chimp who doesn't want to live as if it's five minutes before the end of the world in a sixties novel. The story works its way towards an unexpectedly touching Bladerunner-esque ending that leaves us asking questions about the ethics of normative pressure, no matter from which angle it may come. 3. "There is a boy and there is a girl. Jane sees the girl on Tuesdays and Fridays, and she sees the boy on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The other three nights, she sleeps by herself in her big, firm, bed." "This is How it Starts" is the first story of the collection, and, minus the second-person address, it's reminiscent of Lorrie Moore's Self-Help in its wry and wistful account of young love in New York. Cain's comic tonal strategies are similar to Moore's. Both of Jane's lovers slowly crank up the pressure on Jane to take their mutual activities from the status of a twice-weekly racquet-ball date to something resembling a normal relationship. The boy walks beside her, all the dogs at her side. There is silence, during which she assumes his thoughts have moved on to football or food. But at the next doorway, he says, "Lousy pay is why they invented rent control." His eyes flicker upward, in the direction of her apartment. In evolutionary terms, her job at this moment is to encourage him. Her girl instinct is clear about this. She is supposed to say something to spark further comments regarding shared domesticity. Like Moore, Cain is interested in the divided consciousness. We know the idea that's occurring to Jane, but there is a conspicuous failure of one part of her mind to endorse the observation of the other. In the wrong hands, the comedy of comparison could go Seinfeld very quickly. Did you ever notice how in bed, woman are all like THIS but men are all like THIS? But the language is delicate, specific, and original. "She ponders instead the unfair advantage of girls over boys. Their adaptable body parts, and their ability to say what they mean." Again, the title keeps pushing at us to look for patterns. What certain behaviors are so damn necessary? Jane's female lover confronts her and pushes her to make a choice. Jane's habitual response is to deflect, to avoid. She looks for something relevant to say, some piece of information, something that will not require her to form a sentence containing any of the same words the girl has just used. She looks for a small fact, a clarification. What she ends up with is this: “The dog was a gift.” Later, on the same page, it's the boy who wants a heart to heart. "I'm going back to my wife," the boy says. They are sitting at the dinette table. Normally he would be gone by the end of her first dog [walking] shift but today she comes home to eggs on the table. She pushes her plate away. "This is my great-grandmother's china. It's antique." In the end the story isn't about the pleasures and pitfalls of liking both oysters and snails. Jane's bisexuality is a given of the situation, almost a sleight of hand trick, and a clever diversion from the story's true line of inquiry, which has to do with Jane's capacity for commitment and intimacy, with her readiness for adulthood. As we eventually learn, Jane's most significant relational axis is not the romantic engagement of equals but the vertical one of parents and children, and she ends the story on the phone with neither the boy nor the girl but her mother. It's worth noting the collection features nearly as many pairs of mothers and daughters as it does lovers. 4. In another interview at The Short Review, Cain says that the number one thing she wants to know from her readers is, "Did I go too far?" Too far in what direction? The book is anything but angry: she's not working Kathy Acker's side of the street. Despite the collection's glorious cover featuring perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing protuberant breast in the history of publishing, the stories aren't stealth attempts to double as titillation. Writing about sex isn't the same as writing erotica — Cain isn't working Susie Bright's side of the street either. What is sexual freedom pushing against, in this collection? Perhaps in a nation whose Puritan roots are omnipresent, there's no need to overtly state what the enemy is. The closest the collection comes to defining its opposite is in "The Steam Room," the story that does go the furthest, at least in terms of how much trouble it dishes out to its main character. In its opening scene the protagonist Helen is caught masturbating in the YMCA steam room by two "after-school Bible Clubbers." But lest we read any Manichaean confrontation into this, the story quickly makes it clear that the girls are not cardboard fanatics, and Helen has only herself to blame for getting caught with her pants down. "'Don’t think it's not a sickening feeling,' she confessed. 'I'm sickened.'" Helen's "expensive orgasm" and subsequent public humiliation threatens to land her in jail and is potentially devastating to her husband's political career. The story is hardly cynical or flip about either of those consequences, but while protestors camp in front of her house holding candles and banners that proclaim, "The Wages of Sin are Death," an odd thing happens: friends, family members, and complete strangers begin to privately share their own stories of sexual misbehavior and shame with her. Because she's been caught "jilling off," she becomes a kind of psychic shame-free zone for others. It's as if the world keeps failing to draw the most elementary conclusions from high school health class. Everybody likes to get off, so why do we have to expend so much effort concealing it? Welcome to the monkey house. 5. Good fiction is an invitation to ponder the hologrammatic relationship between the part and the whole. How does this image, or phrase, or sentence, or scene somehow incarnate its parent vessel? How does our take on the intentions of the book inform the way we read its components? Jane, of "This is How it Starts," is an artist who paints on glass, which necessitates a seemingly backwards approach. "She must paint her foregrounds first... she must put blush on a cheek before she paints a cheek." The image is slyly suggestive of the process of fiction itself: details have a way of creating stories around themselves, and the act of writing is often a quest to discover why some mental snapshot or fragment of language is exerting such relentless pressure on the writer's cerebral cortex. The passage also directs us to look at the way human lives are driven by small details, by contingency. One final return to that pesky multivalent title: here it is in its natural environment. In the city where she's from, Lisa knew a man named Bennett with full Greek eyelids, a cynical urban grin, and unappeasable curiosity about Lisa's feelings. Some mornings while she showered they'd pretend she wasn't aware he was watching her through the vinyl curtain, which was clear but tinted a flattering pink. Her selection of the curtain was deliberate. In the city where she is from, people in love understand the necessity of certain behaviors. The more time I've spent with the title, the less it seems like code, and the more straightforward and irreducible it's become. I think most of us have often wished for a flattering pink bathroom curtain ourselves, perhaps one we could wrap around our souls. I know I have. "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors" which ends the collection, has a whiff of magical realism about it. Lisa, with the absolute minimum of explanation, leaves Bennett and ends up in a mountain village in a foreign country, where she settles into a life of jealousy-free sex with both a male and female lover. The magic lies not so much in the unexplained oddities of the village (where are the children and old people, and how come they don't have broadband yet?) as in the absence of emotional mess and trauma. In this village, all sexual attachments are allowed to run their course without anyone locking themselves in the bathroom or hiring a lawyer. That's one flattering pink curtain. For more on Shannon Cain, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.
Post-40 Bloomers

Everybody Pays: The Extreme, Dark Fictional World of Donald Ray Pollock

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  Click here to visit Bloom, where Donald Ray Pollock will be the featured author throughout the week.    1. The rolling hills of Southern Ohio may not seem, at first, a likely place for serious mischief and mayhem, but the fiction of Donald Ray Pollock makes one think the devil himself is tainting the groundwater. The eighteen linked stories of Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, published in 2008 when the author was 53, tornado through this town of the same name — a “holler” of four hundred endangered souls plus a couple of general stores, bars, a church, and a ballfield. The action of Pollock’s second book, the 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, ranges into West Virginia and farther afield along American interstates and back roads, but its heart is still Knockemstiff and its surroundings, where a paper mill sulfurs the air and poor folk live in trailers with open sewage. Residents are related to at least half of everyone else. An OxyContin addict in the story “Blessed” describes the view on his way out of town to a clinic where his wife sells her blood: “The damp, gray sky covered southern Ohio like the skin of a corpse. The landscape was the seemingly endless row of squat metal buildings full of cheap junk for sale: carpet remnants, used furniture, country crafts.” I understand left-behind towns where agriculture and some rough industry barely support a few of the luckier ones, but my rural Maine upbringing in no way prepared me for the depravity and squalor of Knockemstiff. What’s more, the death-skinned sky and rotten-egg air turn out to be sterile compared to the insides of people’s heads. The fictional Knockemstiff is based on a real town of the same name, where Pollock grew up. “It was claustrophobic for me,” Pollock said in a 2011 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. “I was one of those kids — I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping the holler.” Indeed most characters in Pollock’s work want to get the hell out; but fear of the unknown and of being alone knock ‘em back. In “Dynamite Hole,” a mentally damaged man has lived on scraps in the woods since escaping the Vietnam draft decades earlier. He still fights his disapproving father in his head, admitting something curious, provincial, and utterly believable: “How could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I was afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler?” In the title story, the clerk at the general store says about an old flame toward whom he still feels tender and who’s about to leave town with a lunkhead named Boo Nesser, “Ever since she started putting out for the boys, she’s been looking for someone to take her away. I wish I could’ve been the one, I really do, but I don’t figure I’ll ever leave the holler, not even for Tina. I’ve lived here all my life, like a toad stool stuck to a rotten log, never even wanting to go into town if I can keep from it.” 2. Donald Ray Pollock’s parents ran a small general store in Knockemstiff, where he worked as a teenager before dropping out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant. Not long after that he took off for Florida, where he worked at a nursery for a few months, until his father called to say he could get him a job at the paper mill in Chillicothe, just 13 miles from Knockemstiff. It was a union job with benefits, and Pollock knew he wasn’t likely to find anything better, so he returned. He settled in at the mill, married and divorced twice, had a daughter, filed for bankruptcy, and often drank too much. After about 14 years, he looked around and saw that the other guys who’d been hired at the same time had stacked up some accomplishments — homes and cars and families. “When I got sober [in 1986] I was living in this little, very small apartment above the garage. It was about the size of a hotel room and I’d been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black and white TV that my sister had given me and I had this old ’76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it.” He wasn’t jealous of his friends, but he still felt like a failure. In his 30s, Pollock decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from Ohio University. He didn’t take any writing workshops then, even though the fantasy of being an author sometimes lit up the back of his mind. When Pollock was 45, his father retired from the paper mill. Seeing that leaving the mill job meant the end of his father’s working life unsettled Pollock and reignited his desire to try writing stories: “I just decided I had to try something else. Some other way to spend the rest of my life.” His self-education in fiction writing began with typing out stories he admired by authors like Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, and Denis Johnson. In this way, elements of craft became visible. He submitted his pieces to The Journal, the literary magazine published by the English Department of Ohio State University, and connected with Michelle Herman, one of the editors, who eventually convinced Pollock to enroll in the MFA program there. Erin McGraw, one of his teachers at OSU, noted in a New York Times profile by Charles McGrath that she consistently had a hard time reconciling the “gentle, extremely gracious person” in her classroom with the “dark, violent, often lurid” stories he wrote. Even after winning the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship — awarded to “an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise” and carrying a $35,000 prize — Pollock evinces genuine modesty and shyness, both in his soft, twangy voice (lawg for log) and in photos. And Pollock’s successes have only continued: this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. 3. Though the back cover of Knockemstiff announces the stories as a “genuine entry into the literature of place,” what Pollock is writing is the literature of extremity. In another New York Times piece, this one profiling the town itself, Pollock says, “Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place. When I started writing, I took that and cranked it up a few amps.” Though the landmarks of Pollock’s world feel accurate down to the last junk heap, characters are pushed hard into dire circumstances with which they can only cope through extraordinary action. “Gothic hillbilly noir,” is how Pollock once put it, and indeed there is a traceable line of descent in his fiction from the Grimm Brothers’ original gothic tales. In the acknowledgements to Knockemstiff, Pollock makes clear that the rapists, murders, whores, pedophiles, and junkies in his stories are of his own creation: “My family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.” It’s desperate need — for food, companionship, recognition, a fix — that motivates Pollock’s people to both commit and endure gruesome deeds. One of the most tragic is Todd in “Schott’s Bridge.” Todd likes men, and he’s smart enough to know that his only chance at survival is to use the savings his grandmother left him and get out of town. But because “loneliness always got him into trouble quicker than anything,” Todd moves in with a roughneck named Frankie, whose face is disfigured by a scar. Once a month, Frankie spends a few days with an old hag [who] didn’t give a damn what he looked like, as long as he could make his hog leg stand up. On Sunday evenings, he’d come back to the fish camp bruised with denture marks and loaded down with food she packed for him: dusty jars of preserves, bread sacks of bloody turtle meat, sometimes a soggy pie. To Todd, Frankie adds, “My God, she’s awful. I might as well stick my dick in that jar of peaches.” The two men pass the time smoking, snorting, and dropping whatever they can get their hands on. A bad batch of “mildewed Lebanese hash” makes their gums bleed; their spit coats the floor with sticky blood. As expected, Frankie eventually steals Todd’s savings, but not before raping him and beating him up. Todd is at fault for trusting whom he shouldn’t and lacking the confidence to care for himself, but he’s otherwise a victim, unlike many other characters in Pollock’s work (the father in “Discipline” who pumps his kid up on steroids until his heart bursts, for example), whom the reader can’t help but feel is severely culpable. It’s not easy to inject moments of grace into such brutal stories, but Pollock often cracks open a raw beauty I wouldn’t have thought possible, given the subject matter. In “Hair’s Fate,” a young boy getting off on his sister’s doll gets caught in the act by his father: Trapped in the bright July sunlight pouring in through the open doorway, he was at that point in his fantasy where Gloria was begging him to split her in two with his big, hairy monster; his poor hand couldn’t have stopped if the old man had chopped it off and thrown it to the dogs. With a shudder, he unloaded his juices all over Lucy’s plastic face, the crooked orange mouth, the bobbing blue eyes. Then, like an omen, a black wasp glided down from the rafters and landed gently on top of the doll’s fake blonde hair. The pace masterfully slows, and our gaze into the bright summer light shifts to an insect, small and natural. I’ve been focusing on Pollock’s stories because I’m impressed by his skill for repeatedly plunging the reader into convincing, eviscerating worlds. He’s written some of the most arresting opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” Pollock rockets the reader into a highly particular time and place. He never wastes our time circling about the airfield looking for a spot to touch down. We’re immediately there, in the thick of it. Pinned right where Pollock wants us. 4. Like any art that traffics in the grotesque—I think, for example, of Goya’s Los Caprichos — Pollock’s fiction is not for the faint of heart. While a reader is always helpless in that she can’t influence the outcome of the story, rarely have I felt so hopeless. Pollock’s people appear destined to suffer, as if some rotten, misbegotten force has wrapped them tightly around its finger. In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, to whose fiction Pollock’s is often compared, I’m often baffled by why people do what they do, their mean and murderous impulses, and O’Connor’s own essays suggest that such mysteries are intentional. By contrast, in Pollock’s world, violence is clearly beget and perpetuated by humans: reading Pollock’s fiction makes me admit, with reluctance and discomfort, that people who act badly for reasons beyond their control — poverty, abuse, addiction — are still morally corrupt. Just as when Pollock explains failures in his own life as a result of his own choices — “where I had ended up was my own fault,” he says, adding that if he’d wanted to go to college as a young man his father likely would have helped him, “but that’s not the route I chose” — the author shows us again and again that these down-and-out southern Ohioans make terrible decisions. At the end of “Blessed,” for example, the Oxy addict realizes his son is not deaf and mute — he simply doesn’t talk when his father is around. The father recognizes this moment as one of great potential: he could spare his wife and kid, starting now, by leaving them alone. But then he remembers another bottle in the medicine cabinet, and we know their misery will continue. Pollock achieves in his two books a powerful moral paradox, one that must undergird any fiction with staying power. He reveals with great care and specificity characters who are both trapped in cycles begun by those who came before and who could, if they really wanted, nudge their lives and those of others toward the better, rather than the worse. In Knockemstiff, there’s no such thing as a victimless crime. For more on Donald Ray Pollock, and other authors who "bloomed" after the age of 40, visit Bloom.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Susan Starr Richards Escapes the ‘Southern Boy’ World

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. I’m not sure why certain regional writers remain regional; why someone along the way -- a publicist, a reviewer, perhaps even the author himself -- imagines that only those familiar with the setting, or particular sorts of characters, will “connect” with the work. Someone once said, “The more particular the detail, the more universally it strikes us” -- it may have been a well-known author, or a student in one of my workshops (or both), I'm not sure. Regardless, I’ve been repeating this idea, to myself and to others, along with its converse -- that generalized descriptions, and familiar or broadly-painted characters, are in fact harder to connect with as a reader. In a brief blurb about Susan Starr Richards’s story collection The Hanging in the Foaling Barn -- on a site called KentuckyLiving.com -- the reader is told: “Those in the racing industry in particular will enjoy her writings on the horse world in Kentucky.” I found this site after reading the collection, while attempting to do research on Richards (and finding very little online); and it may have been that narrow idea of who “in particular” would enjoy this collection that confirmed my inclination to feature Richards in this column. 2. “Joel came around a curve on Sorter Ridge, hauling a mare to the breeding shed, and found the local murderer trying to choke a pony.” There is pretty much nothing about this opening sentence (to the story entitled, “The Murderer, The Pony, and Miss Brown to You”) that is personally familiar to me: I’ve never lived on anything like a ridge; I’m not at all sure what happens in a breeding shed, technically speaking; and I’m even less sure what sort of community spawns and maintains a “local murderer.” I may have seen a pony once, at a grade school jamboree, but who knows if what our suburban town was calling a pony wasn’t in fact a large dog wearing a wig and a party hat. My point being that I found this opening sentence masterful in its humor, particularity, menace, and mystery -- even as (perhaps because) the world she is introducing is quite obviously going to be one with which I ostensibly have very little in common. About half of the stories in Richards’s collection are immersed in the world of rural Kentucky and horse breeding (the other half might be described as dark romances). These characters are portrayed in predictable ways on the one hand—as simple, hard-working folk whose lives are closely tied to the land and the animals in their care. At the same time, it’s the complexity of their moral reasoning that strikes the reader, and reminds us urbane sophisticates that moral hazard -- which is to say blind, unsophisticated non-thinking—occurs more often in complicated systems than in simpler ones. “In Clarence Cummins and the Semi-Permanent Loan,” James Petrie, a level-headed foreman on a wealthy man’s tobacco farm, is faced with reconciling a conflict between his tenant farmer, the eponymous Clarence Cummins, and his employer, the money-minded Bud Finnell. Clarence is good-hearted but a simpleton, prone to self-delusion and wobbly judgment; James mostly humors him, seeing no harm in enjoying Clarence’s eccentricities. But Clarence is also proud, with a fierce sense of his own dignity, so when Bud Finnell accuses him of stealing his wife’s pony cart, all hell breaks loose, and Clarence threatens to shoot Finnell. The misunderstandings that led to the crisis comprise a jolly comedy of errors; but what interests me about the story is James’s interior considerations of whether he could have prevented the conflict: Maybe he should have made Clarence sign an affidavit that he would never sell, try to sell, or let anybody else try to sell the pony cart. Maybe, earlier, he should have made it clear that he was running the farm, and not Clarence. Maybe he should have even pointed out to him that mares always have longer legs than their babies, and that Clarence was the one who thought the fence would hold. In other words, maybe a man should not be allowed to be self-deluded, no matter how harmless he seems or how happy it makes him to live in his own reality; maybe this man is harming himself, if not others. Maybe it is one’s job, as friend and neighbor, to speak hard truth, and to encourage conformity of mind, for the other’s sake. And yet, the story ends on both a lofty and complex note (humorous, too): Clarence’s defense against Finnell’s accusation was that he loaned the cart to his shopkeeper friend to help draw in more business, which the friend desperately needed. It was the shopkeeper who then tried to sell the cart, to Finnell’s wife herself. When James asks Clarence if he made clear to the shopkeeper that he could not sell it, Clarence answers, “'Why no?  I never told him that?' Clarence looked over at James, a mild, amazed glance.  'Don’t you know?  That would have broke his spirit?'" It’s an ending reminiscent of Chekhov. 3. When Finnell asks James if he thinks Clarence would really shoot him, James answers, “On the subject of Clarence it doesn’t pay to think. He’s a loose horse.” Other loose horses -- human and equine—abound in this collection. In the title story -- the O. Henry Prize-winner for 1994 -- the nightman in a foaling barn calls the breeder in the middle of the night to announce that he is planning to hang himself in the barn. After a bit of banter, Luther, the breeder, preoccupied with the horses that are about to foal, says, “You got to call up and want to kill yourself here in the middle of May. Couldn’t you wait till June, at least, when foaling season’s over?” He slammed the phone down. Then sighed. It’s the sighing -- it’s own full sentence in that passage—that speaks to the dramatic, and literary, gravitas of a story that opens rather wryly. We laugh nervously at Maurice the nightman’s ridiculous threat, and yet at the same time we understand, as Luther does, that the tragic often comes in ridiculous packages. Maurice is dead serious about his despair, just as Clarence was about his rage. People’s lives are at stake, right alongside their livelihoods: Luther’s preoccupation with the foaling mares in the face of Maurice’s announcement is on the one hand ironic comedy, and on the other straight-faced reality. Which is to say that Richards is not sentimental about the difficulties of rural life and of human-animal relationships. But foaling -- that is, the birthing of these creatures who are as engaging and lively as the humans -- is also a deep reality of this world, a kind of cyclical imprint. It’s the direct experience of a foal’s birth, orchestrated and witnessed by men, in both “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn” and the aforementioned pony murderer story, that offers powerful narrative and emotional opposition to the sheer physical grit of farm life and the rough-around-the-edges characters it engenders. 4. Two of the collection’s romantic stories, “Man Walking” and “Gawain and the Horsewoman,” are fantastical tales of not-quite-human passion. Of the two, the latter for me was more absorbing, fully immersed in the genre of myth (the story is based on Celtic legend), as opposed to the more cerebral, and a bit confusing, mystery-solving drive of the former. From “Gawain:” The most beautiful mare he’d ever seen, he said to himself, and not a sign of a saddle or bridle on her. Pure white. A fine head, high withers, a strong shoulder; and she was long and deep, all her lines flowing together smoothly. A step like a dancer; neck drooping, easy. Following the mare now through twilight meadows. It was a matter of faith to see her -- the almost-shape, as if the mist thickened a little, there. If he looked hard at what he saw, he wouldn’t see it any more. He, Gawain, follows the mare and comes upon its siblings, along with its mysterious, laconic mistress -- “slim and brown, her dark hair clipped straight across by her ear.” This magical story of a stormy, sea-cliff horse race between Gawain and Dana the Horsewoman unfolds not only into lush, lyrical fantasy (“did you never see the horses’ heads, with their manes all silver, rising above the great combers on full-moon nights?” Dana asks) but also creeps up on you deliciously as feminist fiction: He found himself, sometimes, almost wishing for some threat to the quiet life of the little farmstead, so that he might be of use in defending it -- for a big cat preying on the foals? […] for an awful giant trying to carry off the younger woman on his horse? but […] What giant could catch her? […] The two women [Dana and her sister Maude] seemed to have no curiosity about him. It was as if his life had begun, as far as they were concerned, when he appeared at their place […] If women were confusing to him before—and they had been -- now he was lost indeed, presented with a woman who apparently wanted nothing in the world from him but that he would ride in a race against her. Something in him warred with the idea of doing anything against a woman—he’d always been taught to do things for them. But he meant to oblige her in this way since he couldn’t in any other. 5. Richards doesn't seem to have referred to herself publicly as a feminist per se, but in a 2004  interview with the Journal of Kentucky Studies, she did speak of the “fairly sexist environment” of writing classes in the late 1950s, “the ‘Southern boy’ world -- that’s what I was thrown into, and […] that’s kind of a brutal world for a woman. Some of your sensibilities are ridiculed; you’re afraid to have them.” Born and raised in Florida, Richards and her husband moved to Kentucky when she was in her 20s. She had a job teaching at the University of Kentucky, but they also quickly got into the horse business, starting as market breeders and then both breeding and racing their own horses (from which they’ve since retired). In an interview with her publisher Sarabande, she said: I’ve walked the mares’ field in the dark, in the fog, checking to see if some mare’s decided to foal on the wrong night […] I’ve stayed up all night for nights on end with my husband, milking a mare out every two hours and lifting a sick foal up onto its feet, till it could get back to nursing on its own again. I’ve been kicked, I’ve been knocked down and jumped over, I’ve been shoved around innumerable times, I’ve been exhilarated by what just happened, I’ve been terrified by what just happened, I’ve been euphoric about what just happened, I’ve been in desperation about what just happened. All these things in one way or another have influenced my life. My time was always fairly equally divided between the horses and my writing, the difference being that the horses always came first, and the writing had to be fitted in around their needs and their schedules. But in my imagination, there was always a confluence of visions. You don’t take up the horse business unless horses have already captured your imagination -- it’s an abstraction to you before it becomes a reality. Richards published a collection of “Horse Fables” in 1987, when she was 49, and began publishing her stories after that, when she was in her 50s. A poetry collection, The Life Horse, was published in 2005, and The Hanging in the Foaling Barn came out in 2006, when she was 68. Other than a few classes with Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida, she has not studied fiction writing formally in a workshop or conference setting. Her husband Dick, who was also in that class with Lytle, has been her primary reader. She has said that she is more influenced by her life in Kentucky than any particular author, but names Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and The Odyssey as influences. Richards’s first novel, Chapel of Carnal Love, will be available as an e-book later this fall on Amazon.  She is now 74 years old. Listen to Susan Starr Richards read an excerpt -- recorded in the shed on her farm where she writes -- from the O. Henry Prize-winning story, “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn.”
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. When considering writers who first publish after the age of 40, it's tempting to subscribe to one mythology or another. A few archetypal stories tend to surface over and over: the dues-paying artist, spending those early years raising a family or working in a factory. The serial submitter, sending in query after story after manuscript until some wise editor sees the literary diamond in the slushpile coal. The serendipitous instance of sheer luck — a conversation with the right stranger, the mistakenly rerouted envelope. So once in a while it's refreshing to hear from a writer — one who's still writing, and not yet the stuff of legend — that sometimes those extra ten or twenty years are just how long it takes. There doesn’t always need to be a dramatic story to later-life publication — sometimes a writer may just be spending a couple of decades reading, writing, working, and living enough to know what it is he’s writing about. Often those intervening years are simply about showing up. David Abrams is one of the guys who kept showing up. His debut novel Fobbit — out from Grove/Atlantic on September 4 — is a tale of the Iraq war that manages to be as dark as it is funny, which is to say considerably. Abrams, who turned 49 in May, spent twenty years as an active-duty Army journalist — in Thailand, Japan, Africa, Alaska, Texas, Georgia, and the Pentagon. In 2005 he was deployed to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division to help support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Fobbit emerged from his year of observations. This was Abrams’s first time in a combat zone, and he kept a journal — what he termed a daily “brain dump.” But the novel didn’t take shape until he’d been back for a year, and he spent another six years writing, editing, and pitching it. “Fobbit” is Army slang for an employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base, the fortified military compound set up to support tactical operations during wartime. Grunts and officers come and go during the course of their days, but Fobbits — the war’s desk jockeys — stay on base in air-conditioned comfort, writing press releases and sorting mail and playing video games in their downtime. Needless to say, they’re pretty well despised: They were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center…. If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp. A Fobbit’s world manages to combine the rank horrors of war with the mind-numbing beadledom of cubicle land — an amplification of the most protocol-sludgy, buzzword-laden, management-heavy office you’ve ever had the misfortune to work in. Abrams’s über-Fobbit, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., spends his days crafting press releases that then have to climb an editorial chain of semi-inept command before they’re ready to be fired off to wire services and news outlets. Most of these concern casualties, injuries, and insurgents, and contain language such as “[LOCAL NATIONAL] SUBSEQUENTLY EXPIRED FROM WOUNDS INCONSISTENT WITH LIFE.” Forward Operating Base Triumph has a Starbucks, a Burger King, a fitness center, a bowling alley, and cable TV; but it also hosts the occasional stray mortar in the food court. All the comforts of home don’t eliminate the reality that this is a war zone, and all the Army Press Corps’ euphemisms still can’t change the fact that they’re talking about suicide bombers, incinerated civilians, soldiers with their legs blown off — a parade of senseless carnage on both sides. And herein lies David Abrams’s balancing act. He’s written a book that makes you laugh and makes you wince, often at the same time, all the while staying true to its message: that people are foolish on many levels, sometimes fatally so, but they are all motivated by the same basic needs, desires, and fears. Many of his characters are absurd: Gooding’s toadying supervisor Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, who writes his mother long fictitious emails detailing his bravery in combat (in reality he red-pencils press releases and dreams longingly of all-you-can-eat seafood night at the mess hall); Captain Abe Shrinkle, who does see action on the other side of the wire but screws it up so thoroughly that he’s demoted to towel duty at the gym; Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret, who suffers PTSD brought on not by battle carnage but from endlessly imagining his brother-in-law’s last minutes in the World Trade Towers. But they’re not caricatures, and Abrams never yields to cruelty. He was, after all, a Fobbit himself once. For a thinking man in the military there have to be a constant series of accommodations, and Abrams writes with the compassion born of that understanding. But neither does he spare his personnel. Those who don’t succumb to their own presumptions in Fobbit still find themselves at the mercy of the greatest act of hubris of all — war itself. About halfway through his time in Iraq, his agent mentioned that it would only be through a novel or stories that the public could truly understand the war. “Factual accounts are all well and good,” Abrams adds, “but sometimes you need to amplify your message through the megaphone of fiction.” 2. Abrams’s relationship with that message started early. Beginning with those great mid-’60s classics Biff the Fire Dog and the condensed Golden Books version of Pinocchio, he was reading at age five and fell in love with storytelling soon after: There was something about the pairing of words, the progression of sentences, which really appealed to me. I was a reader first, a storyteller second, and a writer third. But I think they all happened right around the same time — before I was 10 years old. In junior high he became a mystery fan, immersed in Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and P.D. James. He subscribed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, so it only seemed logical to try his hand at some “locked-room mystery stories” — not bad technically, in retrospect, but according to Abrams, pretty well lacking in character development and believable dialogue. But those early forays were useful exercises in what comes hardest for many writers: sending work out and getting it back. It got me used to sending out stories to magazines and having those manila envelopes come boomeranging right back at me. My wife has always marveled at how I could deal with such prolonged and relentless rejection. I point to my teenage years as the time I really toughened my skin — got it thick as rhinoceros hide. Still, for a guy in love with the written word he took a bit of a roundabout route. Abrams started out as a theater major at the University of Wyoming, with dreams of becoming an actor. Two watershed moments conspired to change his mind. During his sophomore year he wrote a two-character play, and a workshop class performed a public reading of it — no stage blocking or costumes, just the actors sitting on high stools reading the script from music stands. Abrams still remembers how thrilling it was to sit in the audience and hear his dialogue ringing through the theater. “I remember thinking, ‘I did this, I created that,’” he recalls. “I owned those words.” Six months later, he had returned to his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming to work in a summer-stock theater, thinking he was “God’s gift to the theater world.” But at the beginning of that summer he met a beautiful girl and fell in love. She wasn’t exactly impressed with his stage presence, though, and in an impulsive act of trust he showed her some of his short stories, thinking, “Please don’t crush my heart.” She took them and read them. And that night, she told him, “You know, you're a much better writer than you are an actor.” Abrams had the good sense to pay attention, and he turned away from the theater to become a writer. He also had the good sense to stick with the beautiful girl; he and his wife Jean have been married 28 years. By the time he was 21 Abrams was an English major at the University of Oregon, ready to take on all comers: Back then, I had it all mapped out…. I thought I’d write a bunch of short stories as an undergrad, get them critiqued in class, work on them some more and gradually build a portfolio. Somehow, I thought I’d be handed a writing career with my diploma when I walked across the stage. Things didn’t go quite as planned. While he published stories here and there throughout his twenties and thirties, in such notable venues as The Greensboro Review and Esquire, surviving as a full-time writer proved elusive. Like many artists, he had a series of alternate “careers”: as a cook at Mr. Steak, a manager of a boat-and-RV storage yard, a newspaper reporter and editor, a school janitor, a pizza-delivery driver, a video store clerk, a tutor in a remedial writing program at a community college, and — last but not least — an active-duty enlisted soldier until retiring, after twenty years, in 2008. Which, Abrams knows now, was all excellent grist for a writer.  At the time, it felt like a series of roadblocks. 3. But he kept writing. Fobbit isn’t his first novel; that honor goes to a long-discarded manuscript about a runaway bride. And there was a second — his master’s thesis at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the story of a 20-year-old midget who finds work as the stuntman and bodyguard for a spoiled child actor in 1940s Hollywood. Abrams took the work as far as he could, and turned it in to his adviser, Jo-Ann Mapson: I’ll never forget the afternoon she called me into her office. There was a single lamp burning on her desk and we sat there in that half-light talking for about 45 minutes about the book — the good, the bad, but mostly the good. Jo-Ann liked what she read, but… But then, and I’ll never forget this, she placed her hand on the top of the three-inch-high manuscript and looked at me as solemn as a preacher on a Sunday morning and said, “I think this is going to make a great second novel.” She believed he had another, better book in him that needed to come out first. Neither of them knew at the time what that might be, but her faith buoyed him. Eight months later Abrams was on a plane headed for Iraq. And that’s where all those years of thinking like a writer, of looking for the story in the mundane, paid off. In Fobbit, Abrams follows the men and women of FOB Triumph through their days in a series of vignettes and set pieces, each a nod to that moment where horror meets tedium — each one depressingly, laughably, believable. There are no heroes here, but no villains either. Each character fights his own war, and nobody wins. Captain Shrinkle, who proves to be a coward early on, tries to redeem himself in a series of missions that go terribly wrong — and proceeds to prove that being demoted to towel duty is not the worst that can befall a disgraced soldier. Gooding, the ultimate go-along-to-get-along guy, finds it harder and harder to reconcile the banal press releases and endless emails debating the use of “terrorist” versus “insurgent,” ever more unsettled by putting user-friendly spin on death and destruction. And poor Harkleroad almost begins to believe his own hype until he’s taken down in the horrendous — and yet hilarious — PR disaster that upends the Fobbits of Bravo like a wayward mortar round. 4. Abrams has played many roles over the years, but he was never not a writer. Sometimes, many years is just how long it takes to develop a voice, to keep your eyes open, to remember when to write things down. It speaks to his tenacity that even now he talks about Fobbit’s publication as something of a surprise. “I’m still a little dazzled by how fast this miracle has happened,” he says, and only then adds, “even though it had a 30-year approach.”
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Mary Costello’s Immaculate Sadness

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. Fifteen years-plus in the making, Mary Costello’s first story collection, The China Factory, is the work of a serious and talented writer. The experience of reading it was a curious one, which is to say compelling: I found myself not wanting to put the book down, and when I did, it was difficult to pick it back up. The resistance was emotional – there is much sadness, of the starkly honest and lonely variety, in Costello’s stories. She gets it so right – achingly right – how love and loss are indistinguishable. Every time I girded up and continued, however, I was rewarded, and without delay; there is little warm-up period when you enter each of these stories. You are there, on the underside of a character’s skin, in her mind, behind his sightline, swimming pacifically in the underwaterness of their emotions, somehow muted and color-sharp at once. If there is something that ties these stories together, it is not so heady as a theme, like “the existential state of aloneness.” It is more that loneliness envelops the world of each story like a living, moving thing, and in the opening sentences, a kind of emotional atmosphere opens up, like a tiny mouth, where the reader enters, slips in quietly, whereupon the mouth closes, seals the reader in. If this description strikes you as sexual, then it’s not far off; these stories want all of you, mind and body and soul, like a consummation. 2. Mary Costello is not a formally trained writer of the creative-writing-program ilk. Now in her mid-40s, she has been a primary school teacher in Dublin for the last 20-some years. She started writing stories in her early twenties – before that, it had never occurred to her in any serious way that she might be a writer – and had early success with two stories, one published in Ireland’s (now-defunct) Sunday Tribune, the other shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. She enrolled in a creative writing class back then, and attended a writers’ conference; but then her full-time work as a teacher took precedence, and, as she puts it, “life intervened,” she was not connected with a literary community, and she didn’t publish another story until 2010. It was The Stinging Fly literary magazine – champions especially of new Irish writers and the short-story form -- that accepted her stories, and subsequently The Stinging Fly Press (founded in 2005, with four titles in print) that approached her about publishing a collection – which was released this past spring. It’s a wonderful Cinderella story, to my mind: the book received an enthusiastic review in The Guardian from the likes of Anne Enright. 3. As an autodidact who has labored, slowly, quietly, over the years, Costello demonstrates impressive story craft; her stories' openings strike me as wonderfully instructive examples – classroom worthy -- of getting right to it. Outside my room the wind whistles. It blows down behind our row of houses, past all the bedroom windows and when I try to imagine the other bedrooms and the other husbands and wives inside, I hear my own husband moving about downstairs. ("Things I See") He left behind the warm waters of the bay, the seaweed, the blue of the Burren. He swam in a current of his own and hovered, like a skydiver in the dark. He would swim out far, underwater, to the Continental Shelf. He no longer felt man, but marine. He had a need to reach the depths, to glide to the silent darkness and feel the cold brush of luminous sea creatures [...] In the shelter he dressed and wrung out his swimming trunks. He combed his hair and felt himself coming back to the world. Mona would be in the kitchen at that moment, clearing away the breakfast things. ("Sleeping With a Stranger") The summer I turned seventeen I worked as a sponger in a china factory. I walked to the end of our road every morning to catch my lift to the city with Gus Meehan, and every evening I came home with a film of fine dust lodged in the pores of my skin. From the back seat I had a view of Gus’s broad shoulders and the china clay caked in the creases of his neck and in his grey hair […] Gus was shy and deferential to everyone […] He had a slight stammer and drew his meaty hands close to him on the steering wheel, as if they might cause offence. ("The China Factory") He hears music when he wakes these mornings. The notes float up from below, pouring softly into the room, and for a moment he thinks it is Miriam, Miriam perched on the piano stool with her legs swinging and the purple-flowered wallpaper swirling around her and the notes spilling from her fingers […] He says nothing to Marie because, of course, there is no music, the music is in his head and Miriam is in Canada, a grown woman living alone in a beautiful glass house set into a wooded hill above Vancouver. ("Little Disturbances") I give these to you in succession like this because we can see, cumulatively, Costello’s gift for storytelling: expertly, simply, she lets us know, in these first words, both what the story is going to be about, and, beneath the surface of place and players and events, what the story is going to be about. The intimacies and dissonances, longings and losses, they are all here, plainly, in these first sentences; if emerging delicately from the shadows. And it’s that understated, umbrous quality that draws us in and forward: the sense that ordinary lives are filled with extraordinary desire and disenchantment. In “Things I See,” a woman and her stay-at-home husband live together in persistent tension, while they also carry the shared, unspoken memory of his making a pass at her younger sister years before. In “Sleeping With a Stranger,” a man remembers a one-night extramarital intimacy, never confessed, and clings to it, while at his mother’s deathbed. In “Little Disturbances” an elderly man has the (correct) premonition of terminal illness, and his regrets begin to haunt him, the limitations of love both given and received. And in the title story, a woman looks back on the working-class life she escaped, via memories of the tragic death of a neighbor -- a distant relative and factory co-worker who once acted heroically and prevented a mass murder. 4. Of the 12 stories in the collection, five feature male protagonists, either written in first person or close-third. I was interested to note that my three favorite stories were among these five. If Costello sometimes falters, for me it was evident in a pattern of narrative overreaching – forcing emotional exposition -- toward the climax and conclusion in a few of the stories, particularly those featuring female protagonists. From “This Falling Sickness,” a story about the death of a woman’s ex-husband in a climbing accident, the shock of which brings back to her the death of their young son and the subsequent unraveling of the marriage: She wanted to flee the graveyard and find their island out in the bay and run all day over the long grass and the dunes until she reached the pristine beach with the immaculate sands. There she would lie down in the dark. She would whisper his name to the sands; she would tell him there is no giving like the first giving, that what is given first cannot be regiven, what is first taken cannot be retaken. She would tell him she would never be the same again, or give the same or receive the same or love the same, that it was in him that all possibilities were first encountered, all beauty, all hope concentrated, that he had gone now and taken something and it could not be recovered and she left here, now, impaired, diminished, she was left wanting. This passage reads like a bit like an exercise, an author’s note to self -- the answer to the question, “What’s the emotional takeaway of this story?” It is the articulation of what wants to be evoked through action and detail, what the reader should feel – what the reader might well feel – at this late point in the story, if we weren’t so explicitly told to feel it. 5. I wrote to Mary Costello with a few questions. About her male-centered stories, she said that, for her, a story “usually starts with a character, or a character at a particular moment. It makes little difference to me if the character is male or female [...] I find that when it comes to things of the heart we are amazingly similar and I write the male character’s story no differently to the female’s." So perhaps my observation about emotional exposition is simply coincidental. One wonders, though, if there isn’t something to the notion that when we have a bit of distance from a character, we can see him, and his journey, more lucidly, can render with a lighter touch. I also asked her about marital relationships in the stories. In her review, Anne Enright observed that “Costello’s characters are lonely, especially when they are in a relationship,” and described their sorrow as an "immaculate sadness." This theme – of deep loneliness within marriage – is indeed evident throughout the collection. The layering of time, familiarity, unfulfilled hopes, and sometimes tragedy, erects walls between spouses that can neither be cracked open nor abandoned. From “Things I See”— And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him. And from “Insomniac”— ‘When did you grow this cruel?’ She is talking into the dark. He wonders what time it is. He thinks of time like a small worm crawling across the earth. He opens his mouth and whispers, ‘Go back to bed.’ These are not couples for whom parting ways is on the horizon; rather, these are men and women who will live inside their estrangement, who will bear it, and continue on. “I wasn’t at all conscious of this theme,” wrote Costello, “or of attempting to say anything about marriage – or anything else! These threads simply emerged, unknown to me. The stories were written over many years – some over fifteen and more years ago – and there was little awareness of anything other than writing each story when it needed to be written.” Costello herself was married for 10 years, when she was in her twenties. Are the stories in The China Factory hopeless? I ask this question often of literary fiction; the answer is important to me. Interestingly, the question doesn’t seem quite right in Costello’s case. Strictly speaking, perhaps yes, there is a sense in which these characters are suspended in a state of unchanging melancholy and loss; but as Costello herself says, she is most interested in moments of “heightened states of fear,” which can bring “great awareness and clarity” – which is, you could say, a kind of hope. “Sorrow and grief are very present,” she went on, “because most people encounter these emotions and I cannot imagine not examining them - a fully lived life demands that we pore over them.” And as to whether this melancholy is in some way an “Irish thing” (something I wondered about), Costello is of two minds: I don’t know if there is something uniquely sad or tragic about the Irish voice? I think a great melancholy pervades the stories of many writers from many nations. But the Irish are or were often regarded as inward looking, as having an introverted nature. Perhaps it’s our troubled past, our history, the legacy of oppression and famine and loss – loss of our language as well as our land – that has carved itself into our psyches and laid itself down in our blueprint, causing the melancholy to attach itself and linger. I don’t know. My own feeling is that it’s the writer’s own inner landscape, her own personal unconscious rather than the collective unconscious of the nation, that shapes the stories and imbues them with their particular qualities. 6. Currently on hiatus from teaching to focus on new stories and a novel (or two), Mary Costello is hitting her stride. She has blogged about her fears as a debut author, the daily struggles of writing; further evidence, to my mind, that she is now firmly walking in the shoes of a writer, blooming in good time.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Anna Keesey’s Little Century

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. I'm a greenhorn lover of Westerns, and am thus tempted to open this review with, “If you liked Deadwood, you’ll like Anna Keesey's debut novel Little Century.” I am a fan of both, and surely such a declaration would win Keesey, an Iowa grad who recently turned 50, some instant readers. In truth, though, the comparison would constitute a bait-n-switch. Yes, Little Century is set in the frontier West; yes, it is rife with violence and greed, brimming with action and romance; yes, you will come to know, and love, a tight-knit community of misfits (hero-types and villain-types, speculators and busybodies, sinners and prophesiers), each with secrets and fatal flaws; and yes, this fictional Wild West, where only the fittest survive, will reveal much to you about human nature -- about good and evil, loyalty and courage, and the complex morality of love. But the similarities may end there: where Deadwood is gritty, Little Century is lyrical. Where Deadwood gives us South Dakota in the 1870s -- a world of rough-and-tumble men (in which women mostly make sour lemonade out of sour lemons) -- Keesey gives us the high desert of Oregon at the turn of the century, primarily through the experiences of women. And where Deadwood creator David Milch often rivets his audience via shock-factor (slit throats, raunchy sex favors, human pig-feed), Keesey crafts for her readers a rich and satisfying tale of restraint. 2. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is something distinctly Pacific-Northwesty about Little Century. I am not native to that region, so I may again be treading on thin ice here; but I did live there for several years. Before that, my first introduction to the Northwest was through a friend from Seattle, whom I met in college in New York City: she was tough and can-do, more willing than anyone I knew to get her hands dirty (literally and figuratively); the sort of person you’d want with you if ever you were lost in the woods or took a wrong turn down a dark alley. She was also a bundle of positive energy: I distinctly remember walking down Broadway and noticing that random people would make eye contact and smile whenever I was with her (which almost never happens in New York). In our grown-up years, through real-life tragedies and losses, this friend of mine was the person I felt I could tell anything -- my ugliest failures, my worst fears -- and nothing would faze her. She was both temperate breezes and dark nights, green grass and stormy skies; and knowing her pretty much prepared me for what it would feel like to live in the Northwest. Little Century is a book I’d recommend to my friend, and to anyone who embraces the dark and bright sides of life with equal gusto. 3. Our protagonist, Esther Chambers, recently orphaned at 18, leaves Chicago for Century, Ore., where her only living relative -- a distant cousin, 30 years old, named Ferris “Pick” Pickett -- raises cattle. There’s plenty of land, it’s homesteading country, and charming, laconic Pick asks Esther to squat in an abandoned cabin near a sometimes lake (it dries up half the year) so that he can add the land, and the coveted water-source, to his already estimable holdings. Pick seems trustworthy and kind (to both Esther and the reader), and Esther is alone in the world with no other plans, so why not? With a little help from Pick’s faithful ranch hand Vincent, the cabin is made habitable, and Pick charms Esther into lying to the land clerk about her age -- she needs to be 21 -- so that they can pull off the deal. ‘It has to do with fooling someone who deserves like the devil to be fooled. Maybe you played at pretending not so long ago. You ever try to fool someone? […] If we pull the wool over his eyes, we’ll have a good joke to take back with us to Century […] What do you say Esther?’ he asked, smiling. This smile was cheeky, mischievous, though the impression arose from the high placement of his neat, pointed eyeteeth and he may have been unaware of it himself. ‘Feel like helping out your old cousin?’ He wanted her help to conspire against a bully. Nelly Bly would leap at such a chance. She smiled back. ‘If I can.’ And with this economical little setup, the seeds of both the plot, and the characters’ essential, conflicted selves, are planted: Esther is young and green and wants to please her cousin, but she also admires pioneering rebel women like the journalist Nellie Bly. Pick is gallant and playful, but also ambitious, pragmatic, and clever. These two characters are tied by blood, and they are also drawn to each other as man and woman, in a quiet, mutually respectful way. Each sparks and clashes with other characters -- Esther with a poetry-reading sheepherder named Ben Cruff, Pick with a dark-eyed, half-Paiute Indian woman named Dolores -- in more typically romantic ways; but it’s the subtle affinity between Esther and Pick, which ultimately reveals not-quite aligned desires and fine-line contrasts in moral fiber, that I think is a real accomplishment of the novel, and the most provocative. Forgive me, but yet another TV analogy seems apt here: think Don and Peggy from Mad Men. Aside from this skillful character/relationship evolution, Little Century offers plenty of page-turning action: it’s cattle ranchers versus sheepherders out on the high desert, for apparently there isn’t room enough for all. The conflict starts with petty window-breaking, builds toward sinister intimidation tactics (Keesey’s restraint shines here -- one subtle but chilling incident involves cutting off a little girl’s braid), and culminates in flock-slaughtering and the murder of a beloved (to Esther) local merchant. In addition to land and water-source grabs, the railroad is coming, and various players seek to influence the company rep, by whatever means necessary, to bring the line through Century. Even with all this hard-conflict action, Keesey builds narrative momentum not via conventional suspense strategies -- in fact, there is a good deal of predictability in the plot, which may bother some readers -- but through character insights, thematic depth, and prose both taut and lovely, which Keesey applies equally to action and exposition. Here, Esther watches from a hidden place as masked cattle-herders send a flock of sheep to their gruesome death: Now the fallen sheep form a gray berm, and those falling hit it and slide off, thick and inert. This sound is quieter; it is like a lull. She rises and darts through the rocks to Duniway, who is rigid at the end of her picket rope, her eyes insane and white. Esther, using all her weight on the rope, tries to pull the mare close to calm her. But Duniway stamps and foams, her hind end clattering back and forth in desperation. In her flailing she strikes Esther’s jaw and nose […] At last they have all fallen. There are hundreds. They lie piled and scattered from the base of the bluff down to within a few yards of the lake […] The tender complexities that animals enclose in their skins are exposed, and the fumes of blood and water and oil make an aromatic colloid that in daylight would have pinkened the air. Some of the sheep are still living, and so with the smell rises a sigh of complaint, a last irritability. Esther kneels and leans against a large, cool boulder and spits a little blood [...] Here, we see an interior moment, i.e. Keesey’s insights into Esther’s coming of age: She, too, has changed her mind […] No, not even that. Her mind is like a tulip in a bank of tulips that have come up red year after year, and in bud it looked like any other – slim, furrowed, and green -- and even began to rosify like all the others, and then, finally, it opens. In the sea of red, this one’s petals alone are dappled with orange and the stamens are black. So the mind has not changed at all, really. It was called red too early, before it ripened into its final character. Little Century is Esther’s story, but for me it was Pick’s character, the subtleties of which unfolded slowly and substantially, that generated the most compelling suspense. Is he worthy of Esther, and of the land he aims to obtain? Yes and no. When it comes out that, years back, Pick fathered Dolores’s child, then abandoned both, Esther confronts him. His response is as undramatic and authentic as any response might be today: ‘I can’t recall all of what I was thinking, because I was young and it was a long time ago. But let me ask you. Would you marry an Indian?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she says, hot but even. ‘And I don’t have to know.’ ‘Well, I balked at it. It didn’t fit my idea of me, somehow […].’ And Esther’s response shows us her “ripening” mind, recalling to the reader the dangers of bifurcating justice and empathy, not to mention the distinct ways in which men and women have historically approached sexual morality: Pick is waiting for her disapproval, but the fact that he waits for her to decry his having loved a woman, rather than his having ignored a child, makes her think he doesn’t know her at all. He judges, and expects others to judge also. He doesn’t know the difference between himself and other people. 4. Is Little Century a “woman’s book?” I asked myself this as I read, mostly lamenting that it probably is, from a marketing perspective. It’s a book about a girl, after all, and far fewer men read books about girls than women read books about boys; the math on that is pretty clear. But it’s also a book about insiders and outsiders, friendship, forgiveness, love of the land, male mid-life ambition, corporatism, journalistic integrity, racial prejudice. (It is not, thankfully, a book about a girl who finds her boy: the ending, which I won’t give away completely, is quite satisfying in the way it allows us to choose-our-own-adventure). It’s a book with both a big heart and a big mind, not to mention a generous soul. Like my Seattle friend, both Esther Chambers and Anna Keesey are not afraid to either get their hands (and petticoats) dirty, or to plunge into emotional depths. In an interview at NW Book Lovers, interviewer Brian Juenemann asked Keesey if she’s “worked a feminist Western on to the shelves,” to which she replied I hope so! I adore those irrepressible nineteenth century women who just went out and crusaded and conducted their business with energy and intellectual authority and healthy doses of ego. Why such a book (and many others) would not appeal to the average male reader is frankly a mystery to me. But maybe it’s a coming-of-age thing for the reader as much as the character: I myself fled the Northwest for New York in my late 20s, feeling restless and creeped out by all that competent spiritedness. Ten years later, a novel peopled by healthy, energetic, authoritative women was just what I needed -- dark and bright, cruel and kind.  Comparisons and gender politics aside: if you like good books, you'll like Little Century.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Mary Wesley, That Sort of Girl

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. There is something about Mary Wesley’s work that loves a blurb. “Jane Austen with sex” is the one heard most, but you also find “arsenic without the old lace,” “upper-middle-brow potboilers,” and “posh smut.” She was prolific, writing ten novels in 14 years, all largely concentrated on a particular place, time, and set of mores, and thus easy to pigeonhole despite complex plotting and surprising characters. The question of whether “write what you know” is good advice was never an issue for Wesley; her mid-20th century heroines fall in and out of affairs, marriages, and privilege, much as she did throughout her long career. Mary Aline Farmar, born in 1912 in Englefield Green, England, emerged into relatively genteel circumstances. Her father, Harold Mynors Farmar, was an officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers and spent the first years of Mary’s childhood fighting overseas. Her mother Violet’s family, the Wellesleys, were descended from the Duke of Wellington. The legendary travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was a distant cousin. She was not close to her parents, who preferred their more easygoing older daughter Susan, and was raised by a succession of 16 governesses in as many years because, according to her mother, “None of them liked you, darling.” Mary related best to her maternal grandmother, Hyacinthe, a legendarily free and racy spirit. Mary, too, was driven by distaste for the constraints of the life she was groomed for, although she was quick to take advantage of the privileges. She uninhibitedly loved men, not only for sex — although her libido ran high well into her senior years — but for the world of knowledge they represented. Her own schooling had been mediocre, mostly under the tutelage of the above-mentioned governesses, and for much of her early life boyfriends would express shock at how little she knew of history, politics, and literature. But her “muscular Marxists” were all too happy to further her education, giving her books to read and bringing her to political rallies. Mary was lithe, with dark hair and eyes and a sexy smile, clever, and sexually vivacious. In her late teens and 20s she was rarely without a lover, or several. Although she was pursued by all sorts of eligible characters, at 25, Mary finally succumbed to a wealthy young peer named Charles Eady, known as Carol, the second Baron Swinfen (his father bought the title, but no matter). While there wasn’t much chemistry between the two, she explained, “He lent me his car when I needed it, he was always around, always agreeable.” And then, of course, there was that small matter of the title: when they married, Mary became Lady Swinfen; she attended the coronation of George VI in a peeress’ robes and tiara. Lack of sexual chemistry notwithstanding, Mary and Carol managed to conceive a son, Roger, during a night of serious drinking; but even as a young mother Mary could not settle for celibacy, and Lord and Lady Swinfen eased into an amicable semi-separation. When war broke out in 1939, a friend recruited Mary to do codebreaking work for MI5, and she resumed her cosmopolitan, swinging lifestyle without a backward glance. Around that time she fell in love with Heinz Ziegler, a dashing Prague expatriate. The relationship didn’t last — Ziegler went on to join the RAF, and was eventually shot down over Budapest — but he was generally believed to be the father of her second son, Toby, whom Carol Swinfen would nevertheless treat as his own. Mary found the terror and drama of wartime sexually liberating. This would be a recurring theme in her novels: “War makes drunkards and lovers and loosens all values.” She and Swinfen divorced in 1945, by which time she had met and fallen in love with Eric Siepmann — a sporadically employed novelist, journalist, and handsome man-about-town — who would become her second husband. And there her extracurricular erotic adventures ground to a halt. Theirs was a true love match, and the two drew even closer as Siepmann’s wife Phyllis made their first years miserable, waging a slanderous letter-writing campaign to their friends and acquaintances and getting him fired from several jobs. When the court finally granted Eric a divorce (a judge ruled her “disgraceful, diabolical, and wicked”), he and Mary married two weeks later. The years that followed were romantically solid, if not always stable. Siepmann could be volatile, and he drank; he had no trouble losing jobs without his ex-wife’s help. But they were content, for the most part, and their son Bill was born, in 1953, when Mary was 41. Both elder boys were off at school: mild-mannered Roger was a week short of his 15th birthday; Toby, all rebellion and curly hair, was nearly 11. But in 1964 Eric had a car accident from which he never fully recovered, and he began to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s. In 1969 he took a deliberate overdose of pills while Mary was driving Bill back to school after Christmas and never regained consciousness. Mary was devastated and haunted by guilt — Eric had spoken often of killing himself. Hoping to divest her darkest secret and lighten the load of her grief, she confessed to her sons that Carol Swinfen was likely not Toby’s father. But the admission drove a permanent wedge between the boys, and her meddling brother-in-law attempted to have Toby disinherited in a long and ugly legal battle (Swinfen gallantly rose to the occasion by testifying that he had always considered both boys his sons, and as far as he was concerned they were). Her mother died less than two years later, and Swinfen not long after that. Mary’s health declined sharply; she was bereft and impoverished, with an inadequate widow’s pension and no professional skills to speak of. Inside the front cover of her datebook, she carefully wrote “Please do NOT Resuscitate” before nearly succumbing to pneumonia. But even the best-laid Do Not Resuscitate plans can go awry; and life had something entirely different in store for her. 2. Mary had always written. In a 1990 Publishers Weekly interview, she explained: I started writing a novella when I was in my teens. I don't know what became of it. When I was in Cornwall during the war, pregnant with my second baby, I spent a lot of time alone in a great big double bed, writing poetry. I never thought about sending it out. I had no confidence. There had been several abortive attempts at tell-all autobiographies as well, but she only began to write in earnest during the years Eric was bedridden. Shortly before his death she managed to find a publisher for two young adult novels, The Sixth Seal and Speaking Terms, though neither one met with any great success. Still, she kept working, finishing a third book for young audiences, Haphazard House, and a very adult novel, Jumping the Queue -- a dark yet oddly chipper tale of a widow who sets out to commit suicide (death being the queue in question). The book, which also involved matricide, rape, incest, and the death of a dog, was turned down by a number of publishers who were understandably “put off by the general morbidity.” But in 1982, her agent submitted the manuscript to Macmillan, and by early 1983, when Mary was 70 years old, both works had been published. Haphazard House, though nominated for the Carnegie Medal for children's literature, didn’t make much of a splash. Jumping the Queue, on the other hand, was an instant success. For all its off-putting subjects, the novel showed a light touch, combining black humor with a gentle, pervasive melancholy. When has talk of death ever been so sweet as between the suicide-bound widow and the escaped murderer she takes in? Owls on their silent hunting zoomed over the fields. Holiday-makers drove along the main road, making for the motorway and urban life. Matilda lay in Hugh’s arms. “You will flash before my eyes,” she murmured. “Hush.” He kissed her mouth gently. “I am old enough to be your mother.” He kissed her, running his tongue along her teeth as a child rattles railings with a stick. “A good joke. Sleep now, it’s not the moment to say so.” And yet still, Mary adopted a pseudonym — Wesley, a corruption of her Wellesley ancestors’ name — so as not to embarrass her family. But there was no stopping her now; she pulled out another work that had languished for several years and wrote like a woman possessed, scrawling on the back of old manuscripts and whatever she could find. This book, The Camomile Lawn – once again brimming with Mary’s pet themes of love triangles and guilt-free sex, unconventional relationships, the erotic qualities of wartime, and a deep love of animals -- was published the following year, and proved to be so popular that the BBC turned it into a miniseries. Two months after she sent it off she began her next novel, Harnessing Peacocks (1985), a cheerful tale of sex and class about a young single mother working as a cook and part-time prostitute to send her son to a posh private school. The following book, The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986), was more of a romantic comedy, fraught with Shakespeare-worthy mistaken identities and crossed signals before all ends happily. Not That Sort of Girl (1987) was a rather sweet story of a lifelong extramarital romance, which still managed to get in its digs at tradition, unhappy marriages, and class conventions. It also introduced one of the more wonderful nasty couples in her cast of characters, the incestuous twins Nicholas and Emily Thornby. The next book, Second Fiddle (1988), featured as the protagonist Nicholas and Emily’s daughter Laura as an adult. A Sensible Life (1990) charted a lonely girl’s love for three men, and highlighted another of Wesley’s favorite motifs, i.e., self-absorbed and neglectful parents. A Dubious Legacy, her reimagining of Jane Eyre, came out in 1992, followed by An Imaginative Experience (1995) and Part of the Furniture (1997). All of her books made appearances on bestseller lists. And then? She was done writing, at age 84, explaining simply “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.” Mary Wesley claimed that Jumping the Queue was “a means of working out despair” after Siepmann’s death, and certainly it must have been therapeutic. But the book’s merits, and that of her writing career, went far beyond comfort. Her accomplishments were a vindication of having lived life on her own terms — not just that she got rich and traded her wool for cashmere, but that she was able to turn it all into art: the eternal fantasy of the black sheep. She had a soft touch for dark themes, offering deception and adultery the same respect as the rest of the natural world they occupied. The only sin she couldn’t forgive her characters was cruelty. From Not That Sort of Girl, in which she's been in both love with Mylo and married to Ned for most of her life: Dear kind Ned. Was there a moment when I could have cried halt? It was my fault, thought Rose, I was inattentive…. I used him to deflect attention from Mylo. I trailed Ned as the lapwing trails her wing. Mary died of cancer at the end of 2002, ironically the same week that Granta published its third “Best of Young British Novelists” issue. She was, and remains, a consolation amidst the cult of the fresh-faced, and a testimony to the value of a life fully lived.