Today we are pleased to feature author John Milas as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, John discusses his short story “Tide Roll Away,” and emphasizes the theme of the “humanity of people who wear uniforms.”
John states that “We live in a society in which we are taught to dehumanize the uniformed, regardless of our place on the political spectrum.” Whether it’s the uniformed police, members of the military, or even “the teenager behind the cash register at a fast-food franchise,” John emphasizes that we are taught to use uniforms as a way to “dehumanize and exploit” those who wear them, and to only see such individuals “as part of a larger group.”
John muses on the idea if we, as members of society, “ever interrogate the specific, detailed reasons that an individual may have for wearing [their] uniform.” Eventually, he finds that “we spend more time jumping to conclusions than we do exercising our ability…to empathize with individuals, or our imperative as artists to do so.” He concludes by quoting “fellow veteran writer” Ulf Pike, who says that “I can’t tell anybody else what they should be writing about in terms of war or the military…My responsibility is to myself, that I write from a genuine conviction…to find traction and friction and move forward.”
You can read John’s story, “Tide Roll Away,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.
On Wednesday June 14th at 7PM, Changing Hands Phoenix will be hosting Paul Brinkley-Rogers as he discusses his new memoir, Please Enjoy Your Happiness. The memoir focuses on his time in 1959 when he had a love affair with an older Japanese woman while serving aboard a US Navy vessel outside of Yokusaka. Paul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and veteran war correspondent that worked for many years in Asia, covering the war in Vietnam and Camboadia for Newsweek.
Find out more about the event at Changing Hands’ Phoenix location (300 W Camelback Phoenix, AZ 85013) here.
New Madrid, journal of contemporary literature, will dedicate its Winter 2013 issue to the theme of winning and losing. Though not limited to basketball or to sports in general in its expression of the theme, this issue will serve as a tribute to the MSU Racer basketball team, which basked in unprecedented national attention in the 2011-12 season due to its status as the last undefeated Division I men’s team, at one point climbing as high as No. 7 in national rankings. The Racers also clinched the Ohio Valley Conference championship and secured their 15th invitation to the NCAA tournament—as a 6th seed, their highest ever. The editors are looking for work in all literary genres that gives evidence of what ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to call “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” Through the theme, the issue will explore the implications of winning and losing, not just in sports but in many other arenas as well (for example, war, business, marriage, board games, real estate, the stock market). Submissions addressing success, failure, luck, chance, etc., in any aspect of the human condition are welcome. All submissions should be of interest to the general reader. Please do not submit scholarly articles. Submissions will be accepted between August 15 and October 15, 2012. Guidelines: www.newmadridjournal.org.
This spring I lost a manuscript. A hundred and fifty pages of handwritten text that I’d been working on for a year.
We’d suffered an upheaval of the home, a bedbug infestation. To get rid of these fiends, you must evict yourself from the rooms they have taken. Defeated as soon as you begin, you must vacuum, wash, bag, roast, poison or discard your belongings. Once you have removed all evidence of yourself, the exterminator sprays down a poison that must remain on your floor for months. The bugs don’t die easy. The poison must be set down in layers. It was not these actions alone, but the required repetition of these actions, that unhinged me.
I like to write in the morning, sitting in bed. The book I’d been working on, months of research and piles of handwritten text, was kept in a binder. I always write everything by hand first, but this time I was trying an added experiment of not entering any of it into the computer. I wanted to see how organic the structure might be if I didn’t interrupt the writing for typing.
Obviously, I kept this binder by the bed.
I think I believed that my binder would be immune. A book being created feels pristine, supernatural, imperishable. But when I opened my binder after cleaning out the bedroom, the first pages were full of blood. My blood. Also, black specks of feces. Those bugs drank my blood and then shat it out in the pages of my book.
In the hysteria that ensued, I vacuumed the pages on the back stoop, thrust them under the doormat in a vortex of ripping pages, wind, weeping. After, I heaped them into doubled plastic bags. There, memory fails.
A day or so later, I realized that I didn’t remember what I’d done with the manuscript. I remarked to my husband that it was somewhere in the sea of black trash bags we had surrounding our house, filling our shed, in the Bluebeard’s chamber of our closed-off bedroom. We fondled bags. We opened them. We looked. It wasn’t there.
We had been throwing away bags of stuff marked “bedbugs” for days. I am known for my memory, which is sometimes obscenely accurate. But I couldn’t remember anything after I’d vacuumed and bagged the thing. And if I couldn’t remember, then it was entirely possible that I’d done the unthinkable, that I had thrown it away, that it was in the landfill, baking alongside diapers and banana peels.
I had spent months researching historical Tucson. Free weekends, winter break, I spent hours in historical museums, on historical websites, in libraries. I read books on WWI, on Tucson history from 1860-1920. I wrote pages capturing the mirroring sorrows of war, epidemic, broken landscapes. I birthed a Paul, an Aggi, a family.
I mentioned the lost manuscript to friends, but my telling was impassionate, distant. Oh well, I’d say, I have lots of other books to write. The friends looked at me strangely. It must be in the shed, they’d say. Aren’t you upset, they’d ask? Are you okay? I shrugged. They told me of Maxine Hong Kinston’s fire, Hemingway’s stories lost on a train, Dylan Thomas’ misplaced manuscript (three times!), of Flaubert, burying his book in the face of oncoming war (never found). There’s internet sites listing lost manuscripts through the ages. None of this resonated with me. These lists of absences seemed strange. The truth was, the book was simply growing silent.
One day, my husband said something to me about the main character. “Paul, who?” I responded. He blanched and stared at me in genuine alarm.
As a practice, I often imagine the book I’m writing as I fall asleep, so that I can see the characters up close. When I tried this, on our squeaky airbeds in a room with blank walls and bugs in the outlets, it was as if I looked through the wrong end of a telescope. The figures were small, smaller, tiny. I couldn’t hear what they were saying or see them distinctly at all.
People asked: Would I rewrite? Would I write about the losing? Would I write something else? I gave vague answers. I decided I’d write it in some radical format: short, sharp bursts of text. I decided that I would never write it. I decided to write it without the research. In truth, the whole story had gone faint and muffled. There was nothing to be done about it. It was sinking away. But I didn’t want anyone to know that. It seemed like such a sad failure.
Bedbugs are a shadow plague, difficult to eradicate. They linger and drink and hide. Over a couple of months, our house was increasingly dissected and strewn. Our mattress and belongings roasted in the sun. We didn’t sleep well. We touched hands at night, across the poisoned floor, our hollow beds squealing. The loss of the book fell into the folds of the loss of our home, fell into the loss of our immunity.
When the bugs were finally gone, we moved our whole house around. The bedroom was a place where creatures had crawled across my face, thrust tubes into my skin, drank from my blood. There had been too many mornings where the lasting blooms of bites on my body pointed to our continued entrapment. I could not sleep there anymore. So we created a new house. Everything came off shelves, was cleaned, set up in new rooms.
In the great rearranging, I noticed that a shelf of older, handwritten manuscripts bulged noticeably. I pulled these binders out and found some thin poetry books jammed behind them. It was strange and nesty and behind all these books, there it was. Wrapped in plastic and fragile as an infant, the pages of my book. A ferocious sense of motherhood arose and I walked around the house, weeping and holding this baby to my heart.
Without meaning to, I buried it to protect it, as amulet, as saint, as bone. Unearthed to light, it came right back. Thoughts about the text streamed in as though there had been no hiatus, no terror, no muffling, no loss. The book re-entered my vocabulary.
I am altered, knowing that what is created, invented, and conceived in the mind can be silenced.
I get back to the writing nonetheless.
What he remembers jumbles, rolls, slides. He cannot keep it organized and understandable. He has returned, but some part of him is nowhere, is vanished, a hole. At the bar, they’d told him of their wheat-less, pork-less, beef-less, sweet-less days. He listened and nodded and had no reply. He wished he’d been there. He wished he’d stayed, folded bandages, melted tin, grown gardens. He would have himself, if he had stayed. Something to go on. What would make it different now? How would he fix things? The massive weight of all that Paul did not know rose before him.
Italicized text from the lost and found manuscript, titled, Are There Words for Everything?
Cary Holladay grew up in Virginia. She is the author of five volumes of fiction, including A Fight in the Doctor’s Office (Miami UP 2008) and The Quick-Change Artist: Stories (Swallow Press / Ohio UP 2006). Her work has appeared in New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best. Her awards include an O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the NEA.
She teaches at the University of Memphis, where she is Director of the River City Writers Series and a First Tennessee Professor.
Interview with Cary Holladay
Superstition Review: In your story, “Land of Lightning,” why did you decide to use Tinsley’s voice for the narrator?
Cary Holladay: Because Tinsley has lost so much—his wife, his marriage, his daughter. All of that grief has tested his strength of character and has brought him to a state of wondering—about being a husband, being a father, and what it means to send your daughter off to war.
SR: Burton Laughinghouse is a name and a character that really sticks out in the story. Why did you decide that the name would be fitting for him? How does it embody his character?
CH: “Laughinghouse” is a name I heard or read somewhere and was captivated by. I have a weakness for unusual names, but using them in a story can be risky, like a joke. The name embodies Burton Laughinghouse’s character in an ironic way; he’s playful but selfish, a disruptive force, a con man. His love of birds is real, but he exploits the people who befriend and assist him.
SR: There is an element of religion in the story when the characters speak of God, praying, and the devil being present in Glenna’s life or when the devil was asked to leave. What do you believe it brought to the story and what importance does religion have for the characters?
CH: It’s such a part of them that they feel the pull of its compass no matter what they do. Glenna, especially, feels the burden of her sin for having injured Ned Page. She feels guilt for being attracted to Burton Laughinghouse. Religion is part of the personal mystery that these characters carry with them.
SR: The incident with Glenna Dancy and Ned Page with the arrow was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the story but is really brought to life at the end. Tell us why you decided that this story would make for a perfect ending. What way did it tie the whole story together?
CH: That incident grew out of the fear I felt in high school archery class. A bow and arrow is a powerful, primitive, effective weapon. To aim and let that arrow fly at a living target is to pronounce a death sentence, or at least pose severe danger. The scene tied the story together because it expressed the contradictions in Glenna’s tormented inner self—her sexuality, her anger, her ego. She’s combative. Like Tinsley’s daughter who died in a helicopter accident in Iraq, Glenna has a warrior’s heart.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
I’m finishing a collection of stories set in Virginia’s horse country and have begun writing a novel about the pirate Blackbeard. I’m reading buccaneer legends, lore, and history.