May 30, 2010
Some time back, foiled as ever by my inability to get my novels seriously considered by the publishing industry, I decided to try non-fiction. But having a day job and no time to research and report whatever topic I might choose, I decided to pitch ... The Soundcheck & the Fury -- The Book.
I did some homework on agents and picked a dozen to query. One was said to like music, another was from the South and liked music, and another was Greil Marcus's agent. I figured, you know, bidding war, movie rights, logo'd T-shirts, two week's notice for my day job.
But you know how this shit goes, don't you, if you've spent any time at all here at S & F. The tally was: six no's, six no responses.
Anyway, here's the query letter I sent out:
If a book were a bar (if only, if only), mine could be your neighborhood dive. Step inside, pull up a beer and the best seat you can find. Place is packed. It’s not every night the ghost of Muddy Waters shares the stage with Bob Dylan. There’s the off-chance Patsy Cline might join them, if she can lay off the Schlitz. Nah, forget it – now she’s hitting on F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Not that the regulars seem to notice any of this – they’re wagging cigarettes and carrying on, like always. The conversation wanders and strays. God, the devil and lesser evils. Good dogs, great writers, iPod playlists. Why art, if not newspapers, will survive everything – technology, even.
Someone buys the house a round. Something like a ruckus breaks out, and joyful sounds are heard: Bar-napkin reveries. Sermons of a sort. Odes to ghosts.
THE SOUNDCHECK & THE FURY, a collection of brief essays on life and culture, is the sort of book you could take to that sort of bar. Think of E.B. White, that original blogger, and the classic short pieces he wrote for The New Yorker – but with live music and a little more ruckus. Think of an audience that ranges from the fellow members of my writers’ group to my 20-year-old son’s college buddies I ran into at the Old Crow Medicine Show concert. File under: back-pocket literature. Or: bathroom reading. (On a shelf, say, beside Annie Dillard’s “On Writing,” Larry Brown’s “Billy Ray’s Farm,” and Dave Marsh’s “The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.”)
About me: I’m a 25-year newspaper reporter and editor; a published short-story writer; and author of two novels inspired by the music of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. I was selected by the acclaimed writer Richard Bausch for his Moss Workshop in Fiction at the University of Memphis. Richard has given me his full support and backing, and says, “This guy is the real true thing – a writer with an enormous gift.”
I’d love for you to consider this proposal and consider representing me. I’ve included a partial table of contents and 30-or-so representative pages – a drink on the house, as it were. Enjoy.
Another lazy Sunday afternoon. Sunny, with a slight chance of me lifting a finger. Iron & Wine's on the box, singing “The Devil Never Sleeps.” It comes on all like rockabilly, hopped up on whatever Jerry Lee Lewis is drinking. But as with the rest of the album, "The Shepherd's Dog," it’s pure Iron & Wine even though it’s noisy where Sam Beam’s early stuff was sung and played softly enough that he didn’t wake the baby. It’s as if he realized "hushed" has a volume knob, even if it doesn't go all the way to 11. So the song sounds natural as can be -- it's a good Sunday song, even though it's got the devil in the title. "Snap a Finger, Jesus," it ain't.
As for what the song's about, well, you know, your standard rockabilly concerns: “my buzz-cut friends,” “a switch blade shining in the summer rain” and “a train track ending at the edge of the sea.”
Jerry Lee will have what you're having, Sam Beam.
May 28, 2010
You walk in a bookstore, see all those books there, and wonder if there's anything they won't print. You write one, send the thing around to agents and editors, and you begin to wonder if there's anything they will print. It puzzles the hell out of me, I'll tell you.
But I've not got a heart stained in anger, because you know what John Prine said about all that in his song, "Bruised Orange":
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow
Friday morning in Memphis. I'm at my desk, window open, listening to Dr. Dog and drinking coffee from my Charley Patton mug. Time to write. Time to shut down this blog post and get to the thing that I'm doing, a novel about a poor boy, long way from home ...
May 23, 2010
Sunday. A good day, a lazy day, profoundly so. I could give you a complete list of what I've been up to and about without having to call it work: read the first two chapters of a friend's novel (I don't have many friends but an inordinate number of them write novels) until the battery power on the laptop flagged, then switched to Hampton Sides' "Hellhound on His Trail"; listened to the first disc of the Booker T. & the MGs box set, followed by the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Elgar's Creole Orchestra and Johnny Dodds; walked the greyhounds; read the New York Times and the local rag (I say "local rag" in a loving way; when all we have are Web sites we'll miss sitting on lazy Sundays with our hands on the local rag, wringing the thing of its last drops of news, amusements, outragements and ballscores); made a grocery store run (four catfish fillets, two strip steaks, bottle of hot sauce, blackened seasoning, couple of sixes of beer); typed out this blog and went back to reading...
May 19, 2010
Currently listening to: Josh Ritter's "Golden Age of Radio."
A line from it: "And every time I turn around something else has floated away / There ain't a single thing that I've found with wings that decided to stay," from the song "Leaving."
Last story read: "Same Place, Same Things" by Tim Gautreaux.
Last book read: "If You Want Me to Stay" by Michael Parker.
Another crack line from our man Josh Ritter: "I'm still waiting for the whiskey to whisk me away," from "Other Side."
Most recent records bought: Josh Ritter's "So Runs the World Away"; the Black Keys' "Brothers"; Band of Horses' "Infinite Arms"; Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" reissue with bonus tracks.
Blasphemous musical thought: Van Morrison's "Into the Music" is a better album than "Astral Weeks."
Currently writing: A novel about a man trying to get home to see his dying father, set in West Memphis around the greyhound track and then moving into Memphis, then Mississippi, then -- maybe, if the man's lucky -- to New Orleans, where his father is dying. But the man is not, by nature, lucky. I shouldn't say more. I should write the thing. Cheers and regards, then, my friends. I'm gonna make like a record and see you on the flip side...
May 18, 2010
We stopped in the middle of the road to drink again. The land was dark and empty. And quiet: that was what you noticed, remarked. You could hear the earth breathe, like coming out of ether, like it did not know, believe, that it was awake.
That's Faulkner, from his short story, "Ad Astra." It's the end of World War I. Later, one man speaks of his destiny and another says, "What is your destiny except to be dead?" So drink up, boys. You survived the war but there will be others. Drink up, boys, for tomorrow may awake, coming out of something stronger than ether, and thump you good.
May 16, 2010
Here's my (losing) entry in NPR's latest round of Three-Minute Fiction. My wife likes to say, in these moments of literary rejection, that maybe I should have included more "production values" -- a reference from the cult classic movie "Tapeheads." Meaning, sex and the such like. But hell, this one's got a naked woman drinking beer (and reading the Bible). Yes, I know. It is the mystery of the damned age how I did not sniff literary glory with that combination. Anyway, the story:
She was soaking in the clawfoot tub. She was in there with her flesh and her bones and some suds, reading a book of stories. She had a short glass of beer on the yellowing tile floor beside one of the claw feet. She took a sip of beer and set the book, spine up, on the side of the tub. She sank low into those suds. She figured if the world ended right then, and wouldn’t that just be the way, she’d at least be clean and only slightly tipsy.
Ivy Coldwater was her name. She wondered how the world would end. She thought maybe a flood. She thought it would just rain and rain some more, carpet tacks and roofers’ nails, the great sky unsheathed. It would be no weather to fly; she’d float away in the clawfoot tub, wearing not a button or a stitch. She’d see where the current took her, heaven or hell or the swamps of Louisiana.
Ivy loved clawfoot tubs. Once, as a little girl, she saw one walk across the bathroom floor. This was in the big house on Pontotoc, before her daddy became a white-collar criminal and was sent away to white-collar prison and her mama took up with God and lost her joyous sense of wonder.
It took three steps on its claw feet and then seemed about to break into a run. But it didn’t. Tub water sloshed and then settled and the tub did plant its claw feet and hunker anew. No more did it move. The tub seemed enormously proud of itself, still and all.
When Ivy drew a picture of what she’d seen, the tub was up on its hind legs, dancing something like The Dog. Bathwater was up to the tub’s ankles – she had given ankles to those claw feet and short lengths of shapely legs, too, and a body that bowed and swayed. Ivy had seen her mama dance The Dog with a perfect stranger.
The picture of the dancing tub was crayon on paper plate. Ivy was a girl of eight, already an artist.
“Why, Ivy,” her mama said when she saw it. “That’s a lovely picture.”
“It really happened, mama,” Ivy said. “Swear to Jesus.”
Swearing was much the fashion in the big house on Pontotoc in those days, most all of it sweet in nature. Ivy’s mama swore to God and the governor and whoever happened to be singing on the records she always played. She’d stub her toe or spill a swish of drink and swear to Fats Waller. She loved sly talkers and blues shouters. She loved the old stuff.
“Well, that is quite the trick, then,” Ivy’s mama said with that joyous sense of wonder. She had black hair done like a flapper girl’s and she carried a martini glass she used as an ashtray. “Why, I’d never seen that tired ol’ tub do more than take three steps and stop.”
May 15, 2010
Lately I’m coming across a spate of Jesus songs. (Is that what you call a slew of Jesus songs, a spate? Oh, I know. A flock.) There’s “Jesus is a Friend of the Family,” by the Roadside Graves, which is actually a sort of somber meditation on life and things (I think) despite beginning thus,
Yeah, Jesus is a friend of the family
Yeah, he picks up the paper for us
And on Sunday he cooks us breakfast
Jesus, your pancakes are good
And there’s Mason Jennings, singing “Jesus Are You Real?” Opening line: “Jesus, are you real? Did we make you up?” Later, he sings, “Are you just a word I use, when I don’t understand?” It’s a bit somber, too. It’s more than a bit of a meditation. I’ll bet it’s in heavy rotation on Radio Free Unitaria, if not Hallelujah FM.
And there’s “I Found Jesus,” by Sunshone Still, who found Jesus walking in the woods. (I had a dream once. I came upon William Faulkner walking in the woods. I’m just saying.) Anyway, they talk and go for a swim, Sunshone Still and Jesus. Later, they make s’mores and Jesus sings Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Then Jesus tells ghost stories and Sunshone makes him stop, because "all his tales had Satan in the plot.” Then they break into the wine, and despite it all, this is no novelty tune, no joke. Goddamned (sorry) if it isn't another of those somber meditations.
And there’s Hayes Carll's "She Left Me For Jesus," of course, and there's the best of the flock, Jim Lauderdale’s “I Met Jesus in a Bar,” a beautifully written pure country song (one of those Lauderdale songs you can hear George Jones singing for the masses back in 1970-something). It opens, “I met Jesus in a bar, I guess you just can’t fall too far / I was pouring whiskey in an empty heart, when I met Jesus in a bar.”
It’s further proof the devil didn’t get all the best songs. And I didn’t even mention my latest discovery, “Jesus and the Liquor,” by Leeroy Stagger.
But that’s it for now. Go in peace. Do a nice turn. Let’s all of us see if we can't get through this day.
May 11, 2010
So we drove out Sunday morning to the Garden Ridge store, where you can buy everything from zebra-print tablecloths to pink flamingos to a decorative knight in armor about yea tall to a fifth-grader. We were looking for a white fake-wicker chair to put in front of the house, and of course we found it. You can find anything you want but a live zebra, wines and spirits, and maybe the Elgin Marbles at the Garden Ridge store. Yes, even books. Literature!
We came out with our white fake-wicker chair and a nice, small stack of books priced at $3.99 each, including Michael Parker's "If You Want Me To Stay," a coming-of-age tale out of North Carolina, as told by a beyond-his-years 14-year old with a love of soul music greats like Rufus Thomas and Sly Stone. His name is Joel, after his crazy daddy. Fifty-two pages in, the thing's singing to me like something from the Stax-Volt vaults. An excerpt:
Carter pried up the door lock and put his hand down to open the door. Myself I slapped the merciful Jesus out of that boy. About Jesus and all, I don't think so, but what I like is prayer, even if it's just singing or moaning while chewing the edge of your pillowcase when you're fixing to flood the sheets with tears.
Tank went to thrashing so I slapped his mess too. Then it was a tangle and crisp hot slaps on sweaty skin and grunted cussing of boys too young to know how to cuss and Carter pulling up the lock and me locking it back down. Finally he got it up and opened the door and flew out across the sandy yard up the steps into the dark-mouthed house.
"Holy moly," I said.
Tank went to wailing. I hugged him quiet. He was shaking so hard the springs in the seat were singing.
May 7, 2010
I don't want things too sunny -- makes me wonder what bad shit's about to befall us all, you know? I didn't used to think like this, but there didn't used to be so much bad shit in the world. Partly cloudy suits me. Patchy fog is actually kind of nice, sometimes. I'm pale-skinned, anyway; I burn.
And then there's wrestling with the dark, making your way through it, all alone and dragging but keeping on keeping on. Or, like Josh Ritter says about the song "Lantern," from his new record, "So Runs the World Away." He says it's about "getting lost in the lonesome valleys we all have to walk at times."
Lots of traffic in the lonesome valleys these days, lots of people out there all lost and lonely. But we wrestle that dark, with some of the best weapons we simple human creatures possess -- our wits and hard heads and cock-eyed notions that tomorrow may be better against all odds. Oh, and our secret weapon -- a few well-turned phrases, set to song:
So throw away those Lamentations
We both know them all too well
If there's a Book of Jubilations
We'll have to write it for ourselves
May 6, 2010
I remember, long ago when I was young and radio was good, a DJ in Lexington, Kentucky, playing a song off Pete Townshend's "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes" album. The song was "Slit Skirts," and I remember the DJ saying after, "That song's going to get me through the summer." I understood. It got me through the summer, too.
I'm older now and radio is noise, but I'm still looking for that next song, that next album, that can get me through the summer. Or hell, the week. The day.
The new Josh Ritter record, with an old Delta Queen-looking paddlewheeler on the cover and titled "So Runs the World Away," gives me hope for the day, the week, the summer. It's a lot to put on one record, on one singer of song. But Josh, he's my man. He'll sing me through...
May 5, 2010
Wednesday morning, listening to the mean, old blues out of Memphis. "Bonus Pay" and "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby," by Pat Hare. If Chuck Berry's guitar had been used as an instrument of evil instead of joy -- that's how Pat Hare plays on these old records cut in Sam Phillips' studio on Union Ave. It's a sound of wild menace; you could picture the man sticking his guitar out the window of a barreling car, like movie gangsters did with their machine guns, spraying the countryside with his sound. Run screaming for your lives, boys and girls, it's Pat Hare the guitar player.
May 4, 2010
I look for music everywhere. I listen hard. I'm not saying this is particularly important work I'm doing here -- the world's in the pisser, pretty much, and I'm looking for that feeling I get when I hear somebody like Lyle Lovett sing something like "Honey, put down that flyswatter, and pour me some icewater." (It's that feeling, I think, that a story's about to be told.) I know, I know. It's just music. But we'd damned sure be in some place far worse than the pisser without it. So I look for music everywhere. I rummage. I listen hard. I find new stuff wherever I can. I buy it. I spread the word about it. So anyway, here's what I've been playing hell out of lately:
Dr. Dog, "Shame, Shame."
Deadstring Brothers, "Sao Paulo."
Felice Brothers, "Mix Tape."
Grant-Lee Phillips, "Little Moon."
Grant Lee Buffalo, "Jubilee," "Fuzzy" and "Little Moon."
Drive-By Truckers, "The Big To-Do"
Bonneville County Pine Box, "Fair"
Mick Jagger, "Sweet Thing" and "Evening Gown," from the "Wandering Spirit" record.
White Stripes, "Under the Great White Northern Lights."
Albert King, "I Wanna Get Funky."
May 3, 2010
So I finished a short story, "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home," on the last day of January and spent half of February tinkering and then sent the thing out -- to the New Yorker, the Oxford American, a newish (to me, at least) literary magazine called the Normal School, and (if memory serves, since my records on this are sketchy) the Southern Review. Then I said I'd chronicle what happened -- the story of a story. Like a regular story, only, you know, sadder.
So on Friday I got my rejection from the Normal School. The manuscript came back with two sets of initials in the upper right-hand corner, which I guess means two people read it. Which I guess is supposed to make me feel better -- except, think about it. Two people actually read the story and thought it was shite. I can say that and laugh because I know it's not. It's a fine, cracking story -- friends I respect have read it and said so; my wife, a wise soul and tough reader, said so. (She'll say I look handsome when I put on my funeral suit, just because she's my wife and she's nice that way. But my stories are all on their own. As it should be.) So it's worthy. I know that. But anyway -- let's get back to the rejection!
And so there it was, from the editors of the Normal School, a form rejection slip that said, rather snippily, I thought, that my story "doesn't serve our needs at this time" -- as if they'd just dismissed the help for serving cold soup or missing a blade of fescue in the front yard. Shame on my story, for not seeing to their needs! But there's more...
See, they also included a little sticker, white with black writing, that says:
I WAS REJECTED BY THE NORMAL SCHOOL
Well, I know what you're saying: The tin-eared pricks! The callous bastards! Who do they think they are? I've never even heard of the Normal School. Well, I can see how you might think that. I hadn't heard of it, either. I only bought the magazine because it had a story that was sort-of about B.B. King. I figured they might be like minds, out there in Fresno, Calif., where they are. Turns out, no.
It's not so much the rejection that gets me. That shit happens. I'm tough, I can take it. I keep writing, no matter. I'm 38 pages into "Poor Boy," the novel. But I'm left to wonder just what it is the Normal School editors must have been thinking when they decided it would be a cool thing/nice touch to send people little stickers that read:
I WAS REJECTED BY THE NORMAL SCHOOL
Maybe they thought it was a clever way to say to the struggling author -- quite literally -- "Stick it..." But where? On my car, alongside my "Dr. Ralph Stanley for President" and Avett Brothers bumper stickers? What, and have people say, "Normal School? What's that, a junior college?"
Or maybe it's supposed to be a good thing -- not so much a sticker as a badge. You know, of honor. Except for that to make sense, I think the Normal School would need to have some vaunted place in literary history. Or a place at all.
Or maybe they really are just tin-eared pricks and callous bastards. I'm leaning that way, frankly.