Wednesday, November 26, 2014
In my teenage years I embarked on a self-improvement project, part of which was to read good books. At that point, I didn’t figure I was ready for the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even the Victorian authors, but I did think I could handle American fiction.
So in an attempt to put together a list, I decided to lean on expert opinion and buy American books that had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I figured that those books had been vetted by smart people at the time and surely were worth reading. And besides, they’d probably look good on the bookshelf.
Armed with that list, I went to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena to begin building my library. Imagine, then, my surprise, when I discovered that most of them were out of print and unavailable. At this point, it was less than half a century since the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded, yet some of the honored books had sunk without a trace.
Julia Peterkin? Caroline Miller?
To look at some of the titles and authors on the Pulitzer Prize list from 1918 to 1940 is to get a sense of the fleeting nature of literary fame. Here’s a partial list of winning books and authors:
His Family by Ernest Poole, Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia M. Peterkin, Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, The Store by T.S. Stribling, Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, and Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis.
Maybe one of those books or authors will enjoy a comeback, but right now you look at that list and say to yourself, I wonder what the competition was like. Well, in 1929, when Scarlet Sister Mary (now unfindable) won the award, a fellow named Hemingway wrote a book called A Farewell to Arms, which you can still buy today in any bookstore.
The Pulitzer committee didn’t get it entirely wrong. Also on the list are books by Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Edna Ferber, all of whom are at least somewhat known and read today. But the only two books on that list that are widely known and read 75 years later are Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
The Mysteries Lasted Longer
An interesting sidelight to that Pulitzer list is that a couple of those forgotten authors wrote mysteries. I’ve never so much as seen a copy of T.S. Stribling’s The Store, but I own his Clues of the Caribees, a selection of mystery short stories that’s actually pretty good.
And I did read John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, which is a decent period piece. But to the extent that Marquand is still known today, it’s probably for his Mr. Moto mysteries.
All this serves as a reminder that every book is subject to the test of time, and the failure rate is high. I read Honey in the Horn, which I think was about early settlers in Oregon, and I can’t remember a single detail about it. But even though it’s been more than 40 years since I read The Grapes of Wrath, I can still recall the Dust Bowl scenes, the entry into California, and the farm labor camps in the Central Valley. What I remember of the two books is probably a good indicator of why one lasted and the other didn’t. It’s one thing to impress your contemporaries, but it’s tough to fool posterity.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
The late, great American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor once observed, “There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” That quote was put out recently in a writers’ affinity group to which I belong, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It so happens that my next Quill Gordon mystery, still untitled, features a retired English teacher as the murder victim. In the book, I’m trying to portray her as a carrier of the highest standards — definitely someone whose students would never grow up to write Valley of the Dolls. Come to think of it, does anyone under 60 remember Valley of the Dolls? It was a sixties-era sex-booze-and-drugs shocker that was the sort of bestseller O’Connor was probably talking about.
But I digress. My point is that in my boyhood, teachers like the one in my book roamed the hallways of nearly every public high school, but, alas, no more.
Swift and Sure Punishment
My wife, Linda, teaches biology at a state university. One of her classes is a lower-division course intended to teach students the correct techniques for writing a scientific paper. She sometimes finds it frustrating when it’s clear she’s dealing with a student who seems never to have been instructed in the basic techniques of writing of any kind.
At the public high school she attended decades ago, the teachers were unforgiving of gross errors. She recalls that Mrs. Roark, an English teacher, and Mr. Hashimoto, a history teacher, demanded good writing. Another English teacher would give a student an F on a paper if it contained a single run-on sentence. Or a sentence fragment. Late at night, reading a muddled effort by one of her students, Linda is given to putting her head in her hands and saying, “This poor kid never had a Mrs. Roark or Mr. Hashimoto in high school.”
Attending public schools in Southern California in the 1960s, I was blessed to have three outstanding English teachers between ninth and twelfth grades.
Three Who Mattered
Mr. McDonald, who taught English and journalism in ninth grade, probably was more responsible than anyone else for setting me on my career path. He also assigned Gone With the Wind as a book in the English class, which was hugely valuable. No one who took that class would ever again be intimidated by the length of a book.
Miss Irwin, who taught American Literature my junior year in high school, taught us how to appreciate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. She also showed how to handle the racially-charged issues of the former book in an enlightened and sensitive way.
Mrs. Carruth was my senior year English Literature teacher, who had us read Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The way she drew us into Austen’s moral world was a triumph of good teaching.
Reflecting back on those wonderful teachers, I’ve decided to dedicate my next mystery novel to them, in appreciation for what they taught me about how to write and how to read a book. The more I think about it, the more I figure it’s the least I can do, really. After all, if not for them, I might have written a bestseller.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
When you publish a book, the reactions you get from people can be one of the positive, and sometimes surprising, benefits. After my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, came out, some of the remarks people made were a test of my well known ability to maintain a poker face.
One of the comments I got from a couple of people was something along the lines of “You must have done a lot of research on this.” The first time I heard that, I had the Tony Soprano reaction (WTF?) but I quickly realized that it was intended as a compliment. It was a way of saying the book felt real to them as they were reading it, and that’s high praise indeed.
The reason for channeling my inner Tony when I first heard the remark was that I was thinking of research as diligently looking into specific issues through authoritative sources — something I did very little of. But there’s another type of research, of which I had done quite a bit, and I suspect that’s what people were responding to.
I’m speaking of research through observation. Well before I wrote the book, I had made many visits to the mountains, going to places similar to the fictitious setting of the book. While there, I’d paid attention to, and mentally filed away, details about those areas. To the extent that the small town, the cattle ranch, the streams and meadows in the book seemed real, it was largely owing to my recall of that prior observation.
Nora Ephron once said that one of the great lessons her parents had taught her is that everything’s copy. In other words, everything you see, everything you hear contains details and information that can be put to some good use in future creative work. A good writer creates a large storage locker within his or her brain in which all that information is safely preserved until an occasion comes up for using it. A great writer knows precisely when and where to use it.
In addition to just looking, there’s a lot to be learned from casual conversations. In the mountains I’ve talked to store clerks, bartenders, sheriff’s deputies, campground hosts and many others. A brief exchange can yield a fine nugget, and most people like being asked about what they do, which can yield multiple nuggets.
Get Out of the Hotel
On a more passive level, good old-fashioned eavesdropping can produce a bonanza, and the best place to do it is in a local café. If you keep your eyes on your food or your coffee cup, no one pays the least bit of attention to you, and you can listen in on other conversations with total impunity.
Recently, Linda and I were in the mountains, and one night we stayed at a chain motel. Breakfast was included, but if you’re a writer, having breakfast in the motel is like looking for gold in the dog food section of the supermarket. We went to a local coffee shop, and as fate would have it, the people at the next table were talking about a local character. In considerable lurid detail.
That local character is going to end up in the next Quill Gordon novel, even if I have to stop the forward progress of the story to get him in. The detour will be worth it, and I could never have made up what I heard at the café that morning. We spent $25 more on breakfast than if we’d eaten at the motel, but it was worth every penny.