Guest Post, Elizabeth Sheets: The Illusion of Ascending

dad readsI’ve always been a reader. I don’t know if this is my parents’ fault or not. Recently I found a crayon drawing and questionnaire book I made when I was in elementary school. On one of the pages it asks what my parents do during the day while I’m at school. My answers were: My Dad builds Rockets. My Mom sits on the couch all day and reads love stories. I don’t think that was entirely true, I mean, my Dad read books too. In any case, I do remember that prior to puberty, trips to the mall were exciting for two reasons: first, because I could climb up and sit in the conversion vans in the car dealership that was actually in our mall; and second, we got to go to Walden Books. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t buy a lot of new books there, but it was a thrill just to be there and look around. I knew that eventually the books on those shelves would find their way to our city library.

As a kid, I was fairly well read. Once I got beyond Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scott O’Dell, Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and of course, Judy Blume. There are a few in that list some might consider literary, but many fall into the category of good old genre fiction. I still have many of them because I saved them for my children. And now I’m saving them for my grandchildren, because I don’t think I was as successful as my parents were at passing down the love of literature.

As I got older, I dove harder into genre writing. Once I could get books from the library that didn’t have the purple dot on them, my literary world was blown wide open. I devoured everything from Jean Auel, Piers Anthony, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Some of these authors I still read today. Because they’re good, and because I can get lost in the worlds they bring to my mind’s eye.

Once I started my degree program, my literary world was blown open again. Even with all of the reading in my youth, there was much that I missed. Memoirs? Whatever were those? Well, all of those English Lit classes filled me in, and filled me up to the brim with writing on every social topic I could imagine, and a few more besides.

Writing classes and workshops introduced me to the short story, and the idea that writers who don’t get paid are somehow of more value than those who do. I’m not much for martyrs, but I bought in. In my few years in school, my professors helped nurture in me a love of the short story, and an appreciation for the craft of drawing them out of myself and others. And so now, my private library grows full of chapbooks and short story collections. To my list of favorite authors I’m adding Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Matt Bell, Dan Chaon, Tara Ison, Margaret Atwood, and so many more.

But for all my education, and my editorship with a literary magazine, and my degree in English and Creative Writing… I still read Anne Rice. In fact, she might just be my very favorite person ever (not that I know her personally, but I do follow her on Facebook, so I feel like that counts… anyway).

I’m reminded of this funny thing that happened recently.

modest houseMy husband and I raised our children in a suburban neighborhood of the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We had a modest income, and a modest house. We drove practical cars, and our kids went to public schools. There was a house of worship a half mile in any direction from our house. Our neighbors were diverse. To the east was a family of folks who spoke little English, had obnoxious barking dogs, and always had parties in the front yard instead of the back. To the south were the drug dealers. The husband rode a very noisy Harley and cut his entire lawn holding a Weedwacker in one hand and a beer in the other. His wife had no teeth and only wore a bra on Sundays. (I guess they weren’t very good drug dealers.)

We lived in that house 15 years, and our kids came up just fine.

And just a couple of months ago, we moved. Since our income has doubled, so has our mortgage and the square footage of our new house. Our new block is glorious. The neighbors all cut their grass on Wednesdays, and everyone drives a new car. There are bunnies and quail everywhere, and no one parks in their lawn.

School just started a couple weeks ago, and as I was driving past the elementary school on my way back from my morning Starbucks run, I noted that the crossing guard drives a Jaguar. A Jaguar.

This is it, I thought, we have definitely arrived. All of that hard work, education, ladder climbing, etc., has all paid off. Finally. Now we can live among the educated folk. People like us. Cultured people. People who read. If the people across the street are drug dealers, well they’re damn good ones because their kids drive BMWs.

And then I turned down our street. It was a Thursday. Blue barrel pick up day. About three houses in, out came a neighbor down his drive way, pushing his barrel out to the curb. He was wearing a pair of very snug fitting, bright red boxer briefs. His hairy belly was spilling over the waistband, and his tangled bedhead hair pointed in all directions from his unshaven face. He looked up as I drove past. Smiled.

I about choked on my chai.

But it’s okay. I’m glad I saw him. It’s a great reminder: there’s room on the block for everyone.  He cuts his grass, he parks in the garage. Maybe his wife builds rockets.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: Read Elsewhere

Anthony E VaralloIs there a better book than the book read elsewhere? Why are so many of the books I remember best strangely wrapped up in my sense of having read them elsewhere, away, far from home, outside the classroom, or miles from my bedside nightstand, where all those books I’ve been meaning to read—books I will likely read there, before sleep and not nearly elsewhere—lie unread?

For me, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary will always be the Book I Read on a Paddleboat, when I was 13 years old and staying at my aunt’s house in the Pocono Mountains. My aunt owned a house on a lake, and permitted my friend, cousin and I the use of a red paddleboat we had to unmoor from a dock slick with the splashes of kids in lifejackets, the boat always on the verge of sinking, or so we joked. The three of us would paddle to the center of the lake and read the books we’d purchased on the drive in, at a bookstore shaped like a log cabin, all mass market paperbacks, Dean Koontz, Louis L’Amour, and of course Stephen King. I chose Pet Sematary because it had the scariest cover, and because Stephen King had blurbed it himself as a book so scary it terrified him while he was writing it, and who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? My memory of that book is of a child getting hit by a truck while speedboats and water skiers sent our paddleboat rocking in their wake.

Rabbit, Run is the book I read while studying abroad in London, the book purchased the moment before I’d run out of money and was feeling homesick for Delaware, my unremarkable and not terribly literary home state, which, in the opening pages of Updike’s novel, is only a few minutes away from Brewer, Pennsylvania, where Rabbit Angstrom works a bad job, argues with his wife, and recalls his days of basketball glory. I remember reading the book in our student flat at the top of a stairway that led to a rooftop we were forbidden to explore—hidden away—as Rabbit, in the opening chapter, goes on a solo drive through Pennsylvania, taking a series of turns that nearly takes him to Delaware. I turned the pages, thinking Rabbit was surely about to pull up in my driveway.

I read The Old Man and the Sea while staying at a friend of a friend’s house in Connecticut, part of some road trip I took the summer before I left for college. I’d been put in the guest bedroom, which had a twin bed and a desk with a bookshelf on top: I’d always meant to read The Old Man and the Sea, but had never gotten around to it, and was always sort of afraid that someone would ask me if I had read it—you mean you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea?—and part of the pleasure of reading it now was my realization that no one would see me taking it down from the shelf each night and hence would never know that I’d just read it in the span of a weekend, and could now answer yes if anyone asked me about The Old Man and the Sea, a power I now felt I held in reserve, at the ready.

I’m traveling again in March: I will have to pack some of those bedside books, the ones I’ve been putting off forever, so that they might be read elsewhere.

Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: What’s Not to Like?

Darrin DoyleOne of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.”  The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”

When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”

Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.

In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.

In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.

The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!

Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?

The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.

So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.

I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.

But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.