David Armand

A Blog About Writing, Publishing, and Random Thoughts

Violence in Art

I realize I’m far from the first to be writing on this topic, but on Easter Sunday I was watching The Passion of the Christ and started thinking about the significance of violence in art and storytelling. You see, the first time I ever saw that movie, I didn’t like it because I thought it focused too much on the utter brutality and the unimaginable suffering that Christ endured: I found the most poignant scene in the entire movie to be the one in which Jesus is building a table, and a sort of banter ensues between he and Mary over the table’s height and how people would one day sit at chairs in order to reach a table like the one he had just made. At one point, Jesus is looking underneath the table, apparently trying to judge the straightness of his lines, and it seems almost as if he winks and smiles at Mary (or us, the audience): I found this one scene, less than two minutes long, to be the most emotional and inspiring scene in the entire film. I remember thinking that the movie would have been much more resonant had it focused just on that more human aspect of Jesus’ life.

Then, this Sunday, after my wife and kids went to bed, I came across The Passion of the Christ on television and watched it again. There was a certain visceral feeling about it, especially in the opening scene where Christ is in the Garden of Gethsemane and is preparing himself for what he knows is to come: his suffering. He is tempted by Satan to turn his back on this, but Jesus knows he cannot. I felt a literal pain in my stomach trying to imagine the resolve one must have to willingly walk into this sort of fate. Later, when Jesus is questioned by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, he has another chance to escape his “conscription” to this fate, but he leaves it all in the hands of God, essentially forgiving the troubled governor for his role in this.

The subsequent half of the movie contains some of the most violent and troubling scenes I’ve ever encountered in film save for perhaps a Quentin Tarantino movie, but his sort of violence almost seems unrealistic in its extravagance. This violence, however, was real, extremely visceral. This is what a lot of people didn’t like about the movie, what I at first didn’t like about it.

Then I realized that the movie wasn’t focusing on the violence, per se, but that it was using it to sort of mirror, in the best way possible, the immense love that Christ had for mankind. If he didn’t, he would never have endured such a thing so willingly, going so far as to pray for his tormentors’ forgiveness. It occurred to me that sometimes it is through extreme violence that we see extreme love, extreme forgiveness. It is as if one extreme fosters another. This is the power of the human spirit, the power of Christ’s message.

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Flannery O’Connor once said:  “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners 34). I think this film, and all good art (without being too didactic) does just this. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is “large” and it is often “startling” but it is clear that by juxtaposing that violence with (or using the violence to show) Christ’s love for his friends and for fellow man alike (at the Last Supper scene in the film, he even says: “You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them”), one is able to see the importance of such violence in the film and in any serious art with a message of hope: that the violence is essential, not gratuitous or extraneous; and through it we can learn, become cleansed.

 

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Post Script (04.07.13): In all three of my novels, there is what could arguably be called an excessive amount of violence. The characters hurt each other throughout the books, both physically and emotionally (yes, I believe in emotional/psychological violence); and in the vein of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, the novels end with scenes of a sort of climactic violence: it is a tableau of pain, but much like the tragedies that inspire my work, there is a catharsis that follows this pain, both for the characters in the books and hopefully for the readers/audience as well.

I am reminded again of Quentin Tarantino’s best work: Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs (True Romance is also a great film (directed by Tony Scott but written by Tarantino) that has a sort of Shakespearean “standoff” at the end). I love the blocking of these kinds of scenes, the build-up of tension, the mise en scene, and how this tension is mostly built on the violence, or the coming of violence, the threat of it. I’ve tried to set up similar scenes at the ends of my novels, and hopefully have done so successfully.

But to return to the main point of why I started this little article in the first place, I think that violence can sometimes shake us up to a place of purity: whether it’s the pain itself, the fear of pain, or just the simple fact of being utterly afraid and in the moment with no sense of past or future–only now–that we become primal and alive, stripped bare, closer to what’s real and true: which ultimately is God. And in the final judgment, that should be the purpose of all great art that stands to mean anything, that stands to last: that stands to be a permanent artifact against the neverending pulse of time and its subsequent decay.

For further reading:
King James Bible
Aristotle’s Poetics
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men
Shakespeare’s tragedies
Aeschylus
Sophocles’ Oedipus
Flannery O’Connor’s stories/essays/novels
Aaron Gwyn’s and Benjamin Percy’s essay: “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence”

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Prison Literature

Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by prisons and prisoners. Perhaps this started when my father was put in jail for drunk driving and resisting arrest: this, unfortunately, became a regular occurrence as his alcoholism worsened and his behavior became more violent and erratic. At one point, his driver’s license was revoked, yet he still drove and in his increasing paranoia (due to the alcoholism), started keeping a sawed-off shotgun under the driver’s seat of his car. (He once told us in total sincerity that the FBI had our phones tapped and that we had to be extremely careful about what we said in our conversations: but that was later, when I was a teenager.) At this point, however, he was simply paranoid of the police, probably within right since he was often inebriated and unlicensed yet driving nonetheless. It became a regular event to get phone calls at three in the morning from him, telling my mother to call her parents so they could put their property up for his bond.

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When I was in fourth grade, my teacher took our class to the parish jail for a field trip. In her cynicism, she thought she was doing us a favor. We, at nine years old, were such degenerates in her eyes that visiting the jail would be an eye-opening experience to help us mend our ways. Little did she know (nor anyone else in my class) that my father was actually in the jail during the time she had scheduled the field trip. I was mortified. I told my mother about this when I got home and she cried. Then we talked about what we could do. I knew if I stayed home that day and if one of my classmates recognized my dad that I would never hear the end of their taunting and ridicule. I also knew that if I went on the field trip and saw my dad behind the steel bars, and if he saw me and spoke to me, the ridicule would still occur and likely be more direct. I didn’t know what to do.

The day of the field trip, my mom called the jail and told them the situation: fortunately, the guards were very sympathetic and they hid my father in a cell that wouldn’t be seen by the visiting students. To take further precaution, I found out later, my dad lied in his bunk with a sheet pulled over him the entire day just to make certain no one in my class (or I) saw him.

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I remember the men we saw: the desperation and wildness in their eyes and in their actions. They hollered at us and jumped out at us when they could, laughing at our fear. It was an intimidating experience. I tried to imagine my father among these men and how he handled himself: I later learned that on his first day in there, he got into a fight with a large black man and beat the black man down. After that, everyone called my dad “chief” and the gaurds, perturbed or angered by this, gave my dad a hard time, as if to make up for the ease with which his fellow inmates treated him after this initial altercation.

My dad taught me to have a general distrust for authority: directly by his words and indirectly (and ironically) by his own actions. He told me not to like police, for one, and also that the IRS was going to come to our house one day and take all of our belongings since he owed them so much money. I remember hiding my favorite toys under my bed and in air vents to keep this horrifying thing from happening. When I was young, all of this seemed totally plausible.

(If one reads my forthcoming novel, Harlow, one will see a lot of these events transcribed there. In fact, I dedicate the novel to him and my grandfather.)

When I was nineteen, my dad died. As horrible as it sounds, it was a relief in one way, but I still miss him. He will never see my children, and he will never know me as a father now. But his legacy, for better or for worse, will live on. I have to believe that. And the fact that prison life and prisons have made such an indelible mark on my psyche is, in part, owed to him.

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Some good books to read on prison life and culture are (and forgive me for the myriad books I know I’m probably leaving out here):

In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau

God of the Rodeo by Daniel Bergner

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Life After Death by Damien Echols

“Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

The Green Mile by Stephen King

Lancelot by Walker Percy

Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean

Suttree and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy have two of the best prison scenes I’ve ever read

I’m currently reading Falconer by John Cheever

And Tim Gautreaux, my writing teacher from college, has a great story that doesn’t appear in either one of his collections which is called “Just Turn Like a Gear” which depicts prison and prisoners and those who care about them very wonderfully, and which can be found here (though I think you need to be a subscriber to read it): http://www.jstor.org/stable/25089708?seq=1

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Both of my novels, as well as the third one I’m currently writing, have scenes which take place in prison. The entire latter half of my third novel will take place in a prison, hence all of the reading and research and thinking about this topic. I hope to visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for additional research.

But the bottom line of all of this, what moves me the most, is the idea that man, at his most desperate point, can still retain hope for living and for the possibility of love. That’s what I write for, that’s what I see behind bars.

Mental Illness and Creativity

Last year, my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was after a suicide attempt and several months in and out of mental institutions and group homes across Louisiana and Mississippi. I had to have her “committed” several times, gain legal custody of her and her affairs, and I’m still caring for her needs today: things like basic hygiene and finances seem to elude her.

But she, like most people in her shoes I suspect, is highly intelligent. She is a gifted artist and pianist: I have programs for piano recitals in which she played Debussy’s wonderful piece Claire de Lune at the age of sixteen before a large audience in a New Orleans auditorium. After all these years, without so much as seeing a piano, she can still sit down on that bench and play the entire piece from memory with accuracy and feeling.

She has a sort of autistic memory: she remembers times and dates and conversations verbatim, but she cannot remember to clip her fingernails or wash her hair.

When she was a teenager, she stayed nearly a year in a mental institution and received electroshock therapy, I’m told, but of course to no avail. She also hoards compulsively, filling her small trailer up with clothes and useless items that seem so important to her but is ultimately unsanitary garbage. She lives in squalor.

Ever since I was young, I couldn’t help but be afraid that one day I would end up like her, the disease (or whatever it is) slowly creeping up on me and taking hold of my life. But I’ve been lucky so far. I must confess that I’ve been diagnosed with moderate to severe obsessive compulsive disorder, but I am able to manage that and keep control of my life.

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One thing I’m very interested in reading lately is biographies of people whose work or lives in some way has impacted my own life. I’ve read biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, Albert Einstein, Raymond Carver, John Nash, Louis Armstrong, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Huey P. Long, and Jack London, to name only several.

One thread that all of these artists share is that of mental illness or some form of it. I’ve always feared winding up mentally ill, as it is in my genes and runs back in my family as far as anyone is able to trace, not to mention alcoholism and other addictions. But it is a comfort to know that so many minds have balanced mental strains with robust creative output, suggesting perhaps that the two go hand-in-hand. That the latter, in a way, requires the former in order to thrive.

I should end this by saying that mental illness is not romantic, and I hope in no way to capitalize on my experiences with it: mental illness is ugly, terrifying, and painful and real. Not just for the mentally ill person, but for those who love them and care for them. I have seen places and have been through things with my mother that I would never wish on anyone, and I would change everything in her and my life if I could.

A great book to read on this topic is called The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr, as well as the wonderful biography A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, which of course was made into the award-winning film starring Russell Crowe, also highly recommended.

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(my mother and me, circa 1982)

Some Notes on Style

Style is perhaps one of the most elusive things we can try to talk about when we talk about art. What is style? How does one develop it? Is it something that can be defined? When I am interacting with art (whether it be a painting, a film, a book), I am trying to get an overall feeling from the piece: that is, do all the small parts lead one to an overall “unity of effect,” as Edgar Allan Poe called it? But that effect is intangible, it is a feeling you walk away with, and it is nearly impossible to explain. It’s like the feeling you have after watching a David Lynch movie, for example. You don’t necessarily know what it was about, but you know it made you feel a certain way. That’s part of Lynch’s genius.

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Raymond Carver said that art is not self-expression, it is communication. And when we want to communicate, we want to do so clearly and efficiently, with economy. I don’t believe art should be about our feelings and emotions, but should somehow convey a feeling indirectly with the employment of style and technique.

Now when considering all of these small parts, I very consciously think about structure, for one. My first novel is told from multiple points-of-view, shifting time periods, shifting verb tense. My second novel is told in five long chapters, unnumbered, each from a different point-of-view (alternating between the boy Leslie and his father Harlow), and my third novel is told in short parabolic sections, no chapters at all.

I further remove any extraneous punctuation such as quotation marks around dialogue, apostrophes on negative contractions, semi-colons, exclamation points, as well as commas that aren’t imperative to the flow/movement of the sentence. This can make for difficult reading if the writing is not done with exactness and precision. The removal of punctuation is intended to make the reading/communication easier, not the opposite. The minimalistic use of punctuation also serves to offset the sort of “maximalist” prose style, thus hopefully making for an evenly-paced read. I do use colons, as they are a strong form of terminal punctuation that allow the sentence to keep breathing. The King James Bible uses colons a great deal, and it makes for a strong, powerful text.

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e. e. cummings said: “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” While the inherent contradiction of these lines lies in the fact that by simply acknowledging not paying attention to the syntax of things, one is paying attention to them, I think what the poet means is that one can focus so much on the making of something (e.g. plot, thematic elements, imagery, etc.) that all feeling is lost. There has to be a balance, preferably leaning the scale toward the side of feeling/emotion. There has to be a leap of faith taken wherein the poet simply trusts the process of creation and forgets, momentarily, what he’s learned, what he’s been taught.

When it comes down to style, I’m also interested in movement, pacing, much like a filmmaker, exploring the technique of mise en scene, particularly in the climactic scenes of my books, where the same moment is played out in a sort of quick tableau, but told from multiple perspectives so that the climax happens more than once and becomes altered, depending on whose point of view it’s in. Some of my favorite artists (Quentin Tarantino, Shakespeare, and the Coen brothers) do this masterfully.

Lastly, I study the cadence and rhythm of texts such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and of course, Cormac McCarthy: All of this in an effort to get a feel for my work.

Being a lifelong Southerner, I also feel it is my duty to concern myself with establishing an authentic sense of place in my books as well. This is something that seems uniquely important to Southern writers, as this flat Pine Belt geography where I’m from almost becomes a character itself in the great Southern literary canon. My novels ground themselves in very unique, very specific, and very real places: Sun, Franklinton, and Greensburg, Louisiana. And although I fictionalize the towns in my books, I do attempt to make the places universal ones, ones in which someone in New York, California, or Missouri may be able to see a bit of their own landscape portrayed—if not the physical landscape, the emotional one that accompanies it. Indeed, this landscape is a prominent character in many great Southern works that I admire, such as those by William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, to name several, whose work and style I have studied and admired, and which I try to emulate in my own writing. As Eudora Welty once said, “One place understood helps us understand all other places better,” and this is my ultimate goal, for one of the most powerful aspects of literature is how “the most intensely regional [stories] are often the most universal,” to borrow from yet another one of my favorite writers, Ron Rash.

My prose has often been criticized for being circuitous, meandering, overwritten. I was trained as a poet, where economy of language is essential, but with novel writing, I feel as if I have more room. I would never write a poem, an essay, or short story, in the same style as one of my novels. Novels give us space: whether it’s more space to mess up and make mistakes, as Faulkner said, or just more space to feel out the possibilities of what we’re making, one should simply take advantage of that room whenever one can. I can just hope I have been at least somewhat successful utilizing that space thus far.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

I had the very fortunate, although rare, opportunity to have complete artistic control over both cover designs of my novels. While on the one hand, this was a great opportunity, which was granted to me by my publisher based on my design and editorial experience with Louisiana Literature and Louisiana Literature Press, located at the university where I teach, it was also a somewhat daunting task as well. One would think that writing a novel would give one complete and total insight into the best visual representation of that novel: this is not necessarily the case. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I’m probably the last person you would want to ask if you want to know what my novel is about. So when trying to decide on a single image to represent what essentially amounts to years of difficult mental and emotional and physical labor, it can be a hard task indeed.

For my first novel, I decided on an image that was painted by my late grandfather back before I was even born. The painting was always hanging in the living room where I grew up and I suppose it was always in my subconscious memory, as I had spent my formative years looking at it and experiencing life in front of it. My grandfather was an electrical engineer, but was a talented artist as well. (He wanted me to be an architect and sort of follow in his footsteps, and although I had some initial interest in the field, it waned after I became involved with music and art and books.)

The image was of a church located somewhere in Louisiana (unfortunately, no one knows exactly where, but my grandfather used to drive out to central Louisiana and take photographs of churches and old buildings, and then he would come home and paint them: that’s where this image came from, somewhere in central Louisiana).

I felt the image corresponded to my novel since one of the novel’s themes has to do with religion and since a church is a central structure in the small village of Sun, Louisiana, where the novel takes place. The more I looked at the image, the more appropriate its use on my book cover became: not only does it depict a church in a rural setting, but upon close examination, the cross at the peak of the roof appears to be somewhat distorted, as if my grandfather slid the brush across the canvas to make, in haste, what would be the patibulum. This seemed a fortuitous choice, for sure. For those who have read The Pugilist’s Wife, this will make sense.

Another aspect of the image that worked in my novel’s favor was the use of what appears to be smoke coming from behind the church. Again, if you read The Pugilist’s Wife, you’ll certainly see how this is appropriate as well.

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I had the great honor of working with Pattie Steib in Southeastern Louisiana University’s Center for Faculty Excellence, who helped me to scan the image and provide an aesthetically-pleasing font and text layout for the book. Her assistance has been invaluable to me.

After the cover was complete, I started thinking about the close relationship I had with my grandfather and how I wanted this book to be a sort of tribute to his memory. I had heard him speak fondly of his college years at Texas A&M University and it seemed again fortuitous that the press who was publishing my book was part of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium, so I started researching the consortium and the catalogs it put out each year. I noticed that the cover of each catalog was comprised of an image from one of the books listed in the catalog. However, these were all Texas A&M Press books, not consortium titles. I took a chance anyway and contacted the catalog designers and asked if they’d be interested in featuring The Pugilist’s Wife cover on their catalog cover. It was a long shot, for sure, but I mentioned that my grandfather was an alumnus, and after a few email exchanges I was informed that the committee had decided to use my grandfather’s beautiful painting on their cover.  They told me that it was the first time a consortium book had been used for this purpose. I was truly honored, but more for my beloved grandfather’s sake than my own.

 

catalog cover

 

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When my second novel was accepted for publication, I again had the privilege (and daunting task) of designing that cover as well. I decided to use another watercolor that I had always seen in my grandparents’ house while growing up, this one done by a former teacher of my grandfather, Mr. Stanley Rames. Mr. Rames was a noted Arkansas artist who taught at Tulane University in New Orleans in the 1970s. My grandfather’s “church” image that was used for The Pugilist’s Wife was a result of one of these classes, so I thought it appropriate in both respects. I also wanted to use this image because the main character’s house looks a good bit like the one depicted in Mr. Rames’s image, and the character Harlow himself actually paints a watercolor of a duck hunting scene in the novel (which, as readers will discover, is a very important object used toward the development of the plot) which looks somewhat like the ducks flying in Mr. Rames’s watercolor.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about Mr. Rames, or how to get permission to use his work.

However, after doing some extensive research, I was able to get in touch with some former colleagues of Mr. Rames in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who then put me in touch with Rames’s daughter. She gracefully granted me permission to use her father’s image, and while I was on the phone with her, she told me a wonderful story: She told me that her dad had suffered a stroke when he was in his seventies and was paralyzed in his right arm (his painting hand) so he first re-learned how to paint left-handed, producing a number of works that way. Then he had an experimental surgery, in which a special device was passed from a blood vessel in his leg all the way into the blood vessel in his brain where the blood clot from the stroke was trapped. The retriever at the end of the device then captured the clot and pulled it out of his body, thus returning blood flow to the affected area: his right arm. This man’s passion for his craft should serve as an inspiration to us all.

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Now after having completed my second novel’s cover (again with the help of Pattie Steib), the book is now getting ready to go out into the world, serving as a worthy tribute, I hope,  to both my grandfather and Mr. Rames. I hope what’s inside of those covers can live up to–if only somewhat–the work of these two extraordinary men.

 

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On Writing “Harlow,” Publishing, and Cement Walls

My wife and two kids and I were driving up Highway 51 one Sunday afternoon and found ourselves in the small town of Greensburg, Louisiana, just west of Kentwood. It was a small town, and as we were driving through it, a startling image fortuitously came to me.

You see, on either side of the road were these steep-banked ditches, the red clay streaked up the sides and going down into the dark cleft in the earth. I started to get distracted by this sight and swerved the car slightly toward the shoulder, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel before my wife snapped me out of my reverie by grabbing onto her doorhandle the way she usually does when I startle her with my driving: her knuckles taut and white and her eyes wide.

I righted the car and started thinking: what if someone were lying in that ditch? Would you be able to see him from the highway? What would he be doing there in the first place?

As I’ve mentioned before, my fictional work always starts this way: an image and then questions stemming from that image which turns into a story, then with luck, a novel. The whole rest of the drive I was thinking about this (people always ask me when I find the time to write with a family and two teaching jobs, and my answer is that I am always writing: this is an example of that. If you are looking for inspiration, it’s never hard to find.) and I decided that the boy I imagined in the ditch would be there because he was walking to find his father and had camped out on the side of the road: the ditch offered him shelter. This may sound implausible, but it gets worked out in the book, trust me.

I never knew my biological father until I was twenty-seven years old. I grew up with a sense of loss and emptiness, a void that was hard to fill. Having my own son at twenty-eight made me think about this even more. I wanted to write a book in which a boy looks for his father to try to close some of those wounds: this is an old theme, to be sure, but I wanted to explore it anyway, if not for myself, than for my own son: this book is a sort of long letter to him, my baby.

I was fortunate to have a grandfather and an uncle and a stepfather who loved me and provided an example for me of what it is to be a man. With them I sat through the ennui of hunting and fishing, woodcarving, cleaning a gun, a fish, a dead duck: all the endeavors that supposedly make us male. I’ve grown to appreciate these activities as I’ve gotten older, and I look forward to teaching my own son these things one day. All of these things find their way into Harlow, and I was surprised at how readily I remembered the details of these personal experiences.

Harlow also deals with hurt, the legacy of pain and emptiness that fathers so often inflict upon their sons. Men can be difficult to know, to understand. And sometimes the trying leaves us wounded. It is a curse, and we see it as far back as the story of Abraham and Isaac. Harlow is my attempt to break this curse.

This book is dedicated to my grandfather and stepfather, both deceased now, and I honor their memory for the fathers they tried to be and were. I hope it is a worthy monument.

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When I was writing Harlow, I learned that my first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, had won an award and would be published by Texas Review Press. I had spent years of my life writing it and honing away at the manuscript, sending it out to dozens and dozens of publishers, agents, and contests. When it was away, I worked on Harlow. When it came back, I worked on fixing it. After Harlow was finished and making the rounds, I started a third novel (now nearly halfway finished) and went through the same process as before. So far it has worked out for me. I count my blessings that it will keep working out. I’m lucky, but also a bit of perseverance has helped me.

Once, I heard the author Richard Ford speak and he told the audience an anecdote about how when he was a kid, he and his friends would throw their baseball caps over this large cement wall and then have to figure out how they were going to retrieve those hats. There was no ladder, nothing to climb up on: just the flat wall. Eventually, they would get over it and get their hats back. They always found a way. This is a great metaphor for writing, publishing (and Mr. Ford even made this analogy himself): if you want that hat back badly enough, you’ll figure out a way to climb over that damned wall to get it.

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The last thing I’ll say about Harlow is this: when I was writing the book, I was looking for a name to give the boy’s father. I had named the boy Leslie, a sort of feminine name that reflects how he feels about himself without a fatherly influence in his life. The boy plans to change his name to Lester after he meets his old man. But I couldn’t think of what this man would be called. And then something fortuitous happened again. I was in the dentist’s office looking at an issue of National Geographic and there was a story about an old farmer named Harlow Cagwin. This man was losing his farm to a developer. The farm had been in his family for many generations. I tore a couple of pages from the magazine and folded them up and put them in my pocket. I had the father’s name now: Harlow Cagwin.

The real Mr. Harlow Cagwin passed away recently: here’s a link to his obituary in the Chicago Tribune with some stunning photographs of the real man.

http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/shooting-from-the-hip/2012/12/in-memoriam-harlow-cagwin.html

 

 

I should mention that in no way is my fictional Harlow based on the real man in any way. I simply use his name, not his likeness. Any resemblance to any one living or dead is purely coincidental.

Genesis of “The Pugilist’s Wife”

When I was in high school, I had a good friend who lived in Sun, Louisiana, a small village in the uppermost corner of the southeastern “toe” of the state. The village is just south of Bogalusa, and on clear days, you can smell the paper mill that is in Bogalusa all the way from Sun.

I grew up in a village similar to Sun, a place called Folsom, Louisiana, which had one red light and a population of just a few hundred people. I could understand the insularity that these kinds of towns often perpetuate, and how quickly gossip and judgment can spread there. 

My friend and his mom lived on a wooded patch of land (much like where I lived) with pines jutting up from the kudzu-covered landscape and standing side by side so that you were in perpetual shade, it seemed. Then there was a small circle of cleared land where their house and car were situated.

One day my friend told me that his mom was worried because an inmate had escaped from the Parish jail in Bogalusa and was presumed to be hiding in the wooded area near Sun and the Bogue Chitto River. My friend’s mother was alone out there, and she was terrified that the inmate would appear in her yard or, worse, her house.

Fortunately, her fears didn’t materialize and the inmate was captured with little incident. A dozen years later, when I started writing seriously, this image was still with me: a lonely and terrified woman living in virtual isolation in the middle of the woods of Sun, Louisiana, and standing on her front porch at night, looking out past the clearing and into the wall of pines, just waiting for someone or something to appear.

This seemed like a powerful image to me and it started to generate questions. My attempt to answer those questions first came in the form of a short story. Years later, I would expand the story into what would be my first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife.

The novel went through many drafts (I have a stack of paper about a foot high in a filing cabinet drawer in my office) and grew to nearly three hundred pages. I ultimately cut it to where it stands now in its present form at just under two hundred pages.

I remember sketching out maps of the town in order to get a feel for how it was all laid out: even though Sun was a small place, I still had to know where everything stood since the landscape itself becomes a sort of character in the book. The place where people live has such a profound effect on those people’s attitudes and beliefs, so it was incredibly important to me to get it right.

Another thing people always ask or want to know is about the style in which the novel is written: The book is told from multiple points-of-view, there are numerous shifts in time and tense, and there is a very minimal use of punctuation (there are no apostrophes on negative contractions, no quotation marks on dialog, no exclamation points or semi-colons whatsoever). I did all of this for several reasons:

I chose the point-of-view shift to capture that small town gossip and insularity that I mentioned earlier. I also wanted to experiment with how individuals come to know truth, and that it’s not always the same truth at which different folks arrive, and how that can lead to false judgment, etc.

Then I minimized the use of standard punctuation in order to offset the long and circuitous sentences that I used. I also think that if you write well enough, you don’t need all that extra punctuation there: the language should speak for itself. 

So that’s a bit about where the novel came from and why it’s written the way it is: If you want to know more, pick up a copy of the book and visit Sun, Louisiana, for yourself. It’s a unique place, for sure.

 

The Reading Life

Every writer knows that reading (and reading a lot) is essential to being good at what you do. When I was a kid, some of my best memories are of reading: I would sit in my room for hours reading books, so much so that my parents would have to make me go outside to play. I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries, Mark Twain, Jack London, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, and countless others. I can still remember the way those books smelled, the way they felt in my hands, the texture of the pages. It was a magical experience, to be sure.

I remember when I first learned how to read: I felt as if I had unlocked some door to the universe, and I couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to share my enthusiasm for it. I would read road signs as we drove to school, pamphlets, labels on grocery boxes, everything. I would read it all aloud and my brother and sister would tell me to be quiet. I couldn’t stop. It was an obsession.

When I was in grammar school in Folsom, Louisiana, a little village about an hour north of New Orleans, which had one red light, two gas stations, two hardware stores, a small grocery store, a handful of churches, and a small library, we would take a walk once a week from our classroom at Folsom Elementary School down the crooked spine of sidewalk and up Highway 25 to the little one room library where we could each check out one or two books.

The library was so small (probably eight by eight) that only two children could go in at a time: we would glance up at the dark shelves and point to the book we wanted, and the librarian would hand it to us and fill out a card and stamp the due date on it. We would hand her our red laminated library card and she would somehow record the transaction (this was, of course, before computers) and we would walk out with our books and wait for the rest of the class to get theirs. This was an indelible experience.

The library has since moved into a more modern building, but the original still sits in its original location in Folsom (see picture below). I’ve often thought about purchasing it if ever I am in a position to do so.

So in the spirit of thinking about books, I’ll leave you with a list of ten of my favorite books (in no specific order):

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Light in August by William Faulkner

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

God of the Rodeo by Daniel Bergner

In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

The Cove by Ron Rash

Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard White

 

(original library building in Folsom, Louisiana: photo by Lucy Armand)

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“What Is Your Book About?”

The first thing people always ask when they hear you’ve written a novel is “what is it about?” That is the hardest question for me to answer. To me, if you can easily answer that question, then chances are your book is not very good: it may be based on an idea or a gimmick or simply have a weak plot.

Novels are complex, complicated things: there are often a lot of themes, characters, developments, etc. which can rarely be summed up in a few simple sentences. Personally, the way I work is by starting with an image. Where this image comes from, God only knows. But with my work, a striking image that I either encounter in everyday life, or one that just pops into my head, usually leads to a series of questions. Those questions (and the answers to them) start to unfold into more images, then characters, then if I’m lucky, in a few years, a novel. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, though. Writing novels is hard, often painful work. But it can be exhilarating as well. There is nothing quite like true creation: making something from nothing. Whether it be a bookshelf, a coffee table, a poem, or a book, we as human beings are at our best when we are making things.

The point of all of this is that when you ask me what my novel is about, be prepared for a very long answer or a simple, “you’ll have to read the book to find out.” And try not to feel let down by that response. After all, when I’m about to take on a project, the only way I know what it’s ultimately going to be about is to write it in order to find out for myself.