Denis Johnson told us what he dreamed, and he told us what was real

Author Denis Johnson (Cindy Johnson / FSG Books)

Last night I went to sleep thinking about Denis Johnson, the news of whose passing was among the last things I read before turning in for the night.

This morning, I woke to find everyone else thinking about Denis Johnson, too — many hadn’t seen the news until daybreak. One writer I know shared the news alongside a quote from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning“: “Death is the mother of beauty,” and I went to the poem and fell into it. The line appears twice:

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. [. . .]


Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.


I spent the rest of my morning writing notes for a novel about grief — a novel I’m not supposed to be working on but which called to me today.

Making lunch, I heard the sharp bleat of a police siren, those terse chirps that stand in for communication from one vehicle to another. “Move,” it says — “move over” or “move along” or “move here.” I went to my living room window and found two motorcycle cops directing a long funeral procession from the Catholic church across the street. Absent any headlights, I turned on my porch light and stood on my front stoop to witness the passing.

Afterward, while I ate my lunch, I read Kelly Abbott’s beautiful memorial to Johnson in today’s newsletter from Great Jones Street:

He died peacefully, his publisher and close friends said, in his sleep. Peacefully. A necessary lie. Fiction. Writers know nobody dies peacefully. But we can take solace nevertheless in the measurable fact that so many other lives were touched. Indeed, that is something special.

I thought to simply share the memorial on social media, but as I prepared to do so, I thought back over my morning and all the ways in which I’ve been meditating on death since I first woke up. (In fact, I even had the exterminator out here this morning. To all the ants whose deaths I’ve helped cause today: I am sorry. I hope you find happiness in your next lives.) My thoughts billowed, a gathering cloud piling high in a bright sky, so I decided to post them here on the blog instead.

I never met Denis Johnson, though I know people who knew him, some who knew him well, a few who worked with him. I’ve loved his writing and he has been a profound influence on my writing, but I make no claims to fandom — others loved his work longer and more deeply than I ever did. Rather, he was important to people who are important to me. The first time I encountered Johnson’s work, in fact, was while writing my masters thesis on Tom Franklin; a Publishers Weekly review of Franklin’s debut collection Poachers compared Franklin to Johnson and I wanted to find out why. I remember my thesis director wondering if I might not be getting ahead of myself, trying to write an entire graduate thesis on a debut story collection no one else had written about, but then I mentioned the comparison to Johnson and my mentor said, “Oh, well! This guy must really be something, then!”

This is what I was thinking about when I read Kelly Abbott’s memorial, which included this passage:

I’m thinking about the writer’s life, one in which I am both a witness and participant. Is that rare? I wonder. If not, it must be special yet. Those who live among lines must revere their purpose. There are few other writerly spoils. [. . .] On social media, you can see the respect he garnered from other writers. Whether it was by repeating the news or sharing a quote or in some cases relating a personal anecdote of a shared experience, it was clear this man was beloved. For his words, yes. But also for his deeds. I knew neither the man nor his work. I’ll carve out some time in memoriam.

I thought that sounded like a good idea. So here I am, carving time. Soon, I’ll be turning my attention to tutoring students online and I’ll be thinking about Johnson’s sentences, his attention to a language of honesty and grit, his urgent brevity, his easy conciseness. Later, I’ll revisit some of his stories, maybe check out Train Dreams from our public library.

But for now, I’ll just sit here for a few moments. Resting in this death. Thinking about words and sentences and writers and readers, lives lived and shared through the page. “Indeed,” to quote Kelly Abbott one last time, “that is something special.”

PS: A note about the title of this post: It comes from Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

Johnson, like all of us, has ended up dead. And that is a great pity, because, as a writer, he managed to tell us both what he was dreaming and what is real. The loss of such a voice is tremendous indeed.

That we have such a voice still, in his work, is also tremendous indeed.

Thank you, Denis Johnson. For the dreams, for the reality, for the words, for your life.

Part 1 – Mark Russell, writer of DC Comics’ Flintstones and Prez – Book Club Discussion

Last Sunday, my friend Mark Russell came up to Tacoma to join the monthly book club at my favorite Tacoma comic book shop, Stargazer Comics Toys & Games. We were discussing, of course, the first trade volume of Mark’s brilliant Flintstones series from DC Comics, and the gang at Stargazer were thrilled that Mark was going to be able to join us in person! It was a fabulous conversation, and the coolest bit is that, with Mark’s permission, the owners taped the conversation and have now begun posting the entire transcript on their blog. I’m sharing Part 1 of that transcript here, so head on over to their blog and check it out, then stay tuned for Part 2. Unless you haven’t read The Flintstones yet — if that’s the case, SPOILER ALERT! and get yourself to your local comic book shop and grab the first trade volume!

Stargazer Comics, Toys & Games

– Our recording missed a bit of this first question, but this transcript picks up very early in the conversation.
– For the sake of not typing a lot of sound effects, imagine that we were all laughing, almost constantly, throughout this talk!

ST: Can you tell us a bit about what your initial thoughts were when DC approached you to write the Flintstones?

MR: I thought, you know, it’s set in prehistoric times, and I’m really sort of interested in human anthropology and paleontology. To me, that’s the important thing… what I look for when I’m writing something… what could I link it to, outside of comics, that I’m interested in.

And for the Flintstones, it was like… I’ve got a lot to say about human evolution and where we’re going, and how the problems we have now are, I think, due to the problem that we’re not living…

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The long-awaited debut from memoirist Jenny Forrester

Narrow_River_244_400_80Next week, my dear friend Jenny Forrester will release her first book, the already-lauded memoir Narrow River, Wide Sky, from Portland’s acclaimed Hawthorne Books.

On the Colorado Plateau between slot canyons and rattlesnakes, Jenny Forrester grew up with her mother and brother in a single-wide trailer proudly displaying an American flag. Forrester’s powerfully eloquent story reveals a rural small town comprising God-fearing Republicans, ranchers, Mormons, and Native Americans. With sensitivity and resilience, Forrester navigates feelings of isolation, an abusive boyfriend, sexual assault, and a failed college attempt to forge a separate identity. As young adults, after their mother’s accidental death, Forrester and her brother are left with an increasingly strained relationship that becomes a microcosm of America’s political landscape. Narrow River, Wide Sky is a breathtaking, determinedly truthful story about one woman’s search for identity within the mythology of family and America itself.

Jenny Forrester with the galley of her debut memoir at Wordstock 2016

I’ve been eager for this book ever since first meeting Jenny in Portland a handful of years ago, and the more I heard her read at literary events around town and got to know her as a person and as a champion of literature — especially literature by everyone who identifies as a woman or gender-nonbinary, including through her renowned reading series Unchaste Readers — the more excited I was to see this book in the world. And now it’s finally going to be here!

The official release date is May 5, when Jenny will celebrate her new book at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland. I had planned on making the trip down there for her celebration, but it turns out I have a conflict that day — but I was thrilled to learn that there’s another book event a few days later up in Seattle, closer to my home, and I will be there to cheer on Jenny on May 8.

forrester_400_267_80But that got me wondering where else people could find Jenny and her book, because folks, I want as many people as possible to not only read her book but also get to meet Jenny in person — she’s an amazing, inspiring woman, and seeing her in person is something everyone should get to experience.

So here is a breakdown of her upcoming book tour, gang. I pulled this list from the events calendar at Hawthorne Books, but in my version, I’m linking to the FB event pages for each appearance so you can not only set yourselves reminders but also invite all your friends.

5 May 2017, 7:30pm

Portland, OR: Powell’s City of Books

BONUS: After the reading, join Jenny and friends at Ringler’s at 1332 W Burnside (across the street from Powell’s) for beer and cake!

8 May 2017, 7:00pm

Seattle, WA: Elliott Bay Book Company

BONUS: This is the event I’ll be at. Come join me!

9 May 2017, 7:00pm

Missoula, MT: Shakespeare & Co.

17 May 2017, 7:00pm

Salt Lake City, UT: The King’s English Bookshop

18 May 2017, 6:30pm

Durango, CO: Maria’s Bookshop

BONUS: You’ll find a few Colorado dates — Jenny’s book is set there, so Coloradans, turn out in force!

24 May 2017, 6:00pm

Denver, CO: Ziggies

BONUS: You’ll find a few Colorado dates — Jenny’s book is set there, so Coloradans, turn out in force!

25 May 2017, 6:00pm

Ft. Collins, CO: Wolverine Farm Letterpress & Publick House

BONUS: You’ll find a few Colorado dates — Jenny’s book is set there, so Coloradans, turn out in force!

27 May 2017, 3:00pm

Albuquerque, NM: BookWorks

8 June 2017, 7:30pm

San Francisco, CA: Green Apple Books

13 June 2017, 7:00pm

Portland, OR: Broadway Books

BONUS: Back on home-turf, at famed and beloved Broadway Books!

17 June 2017, 6:30pm

Sisters, OR: Paulina Springs Books

Not seeing your town or favorite bookstore listed here? Contact Hawthorne Books and ask how to invite Jenny to come read near you! Can’t make a reading but want a copy of Jenny’s book? Order your copy through any of the links at Jenny’s website, including Broadway Books or Powell’s Books! Want a sneak preview? Check out the excerpt in Portland Monthly magazine.

A couple of Southern transplants around the Puget Sound


Last Thursday, I joined novelist Alec Clayton for a reading and book signing at the Timberland Regional Library in Lacey, WA. Alec read a couple of passages from his most recent novel, Tupelo, with a perfectly timed emotional shift: a bit of humor and then a wonderfully nostalgic teenage make-out session that takes a sudden turn at the end into much, much darker territory.

It was gut-wrenching moment perfectly timed for maximum emotional impact, and when he finished and it was my turn to read from Hagridden, I announced, “Well, then, on that note, let’s kill some people!”

I read a passage from later in my novel, when Buford and the girl are on the run up north, near Fort Niblets, and as they make their way back into the southern bayou they meet Catherine Stone and the women who are living with her. It’s a hard passage to read aloud, in part because of the many voices at play in the scene and in part because of the language the characters use (there are a lot of racial slurs in that scene), but I wanted to read it so I could then read the “prequel” short story, “What Have You Done to Deserve Such a Halo,” about Catherine Stone’s encounter with a shadowy figure (spoiler: he’s a rougarou!) and her reason for gathering all those women into her home.

The reason Alec and I were reading together, apart from our mutual admiration (Alec is one hell of a storyteller!), is that we both grew up in the South — Alec in Mississippi and I in Texas (with roots in Oklahoma and Louisiana, too) — and even though we’ve both lived in a range of other places and have settled here in the Pacific Northwest, we both continue to write fiction set down South. Which is what we spent a lot of our Q&A session talking about.

It was a wonderful conversation with the audience, with a lot of deep, insightful questions about how our sense of place impacts our writing — and vice versa — which went over great because some of the folks in the audience were also Southern transplants or had spent time down South, so the audience had a lot to contribute to that discussion!

We also talked about the kind of work that goes into not only writing and publishing our books but also promoting them. All Alec’s books, for example, are through Mud Flat Press, which is actually the press he and his wife Gabi set up; Mud Flat publishes other authors, but since Alec and Gabi own and run the press, Alec’s books are technically self-published: he and Gabi have to do (or hire) all the editing, design, and production work themselves, and then they have to do all the marketing as well. My books, on the other hand, are all small-press, which means someone else is doing all the editing and design and production (I joked that I prefer this because I’m so lazy), but a lot of the marketing is still on me, because small presses barely have the budgets to publish their books, much less promote them. So Alec and I kicked around a conversation about our different and really not-so-different experiences in publishing.

I also want to give a shout-out to my wife, Jennifer, for taking the photos in this post (and for asking some great questions during the Q&A!) and a huge thanks to the library staff in Lacey, especially the delightful librarian Jennifer (who is not my wife but a completely different Jennifer, though the two librarian Jennifers were excited to discover each other!). The library is especially supportive of local and independent authors, and they even have posted advice on promotion for self-published authors and feature local and self-published authors on their shelves.

Attic treasures: found poetry

We’re having our roof redone, and today, while the roofers were stripping off the old skin but before they’d had a chance to begin re-plywooding the surface, it began to rain, a  light sprinkle through the shiplap of our old house. Most of our attic storage is in plastic bins, but to be safe, I started hauling the fabric-covered luggage and a few cardboard boxes into our bedroom. Which is when I found this loose, torn scrap of notebook paper shaken loose from the attic boards.

The paper is foxed and yellowed but, apart from some severe tears and a few missing hunks, it’s in fairly good shape and doesn’t appear to be terribly old. Our house was built in 1929, but this doesn’t seem remotely that aged. Previous owners renovated the house sometime near mid-century, in the late ’40s or early ’50s, but I’d be surprised if this page was even that old.

We do know that sometime in the ’60s or ’70s, a woman who worked as a lunch-lady in the school down the street from us raised her own kids in this house. And I would believe this paper might have come from that era. But I don’t know that it’s hers, either.

Whoever wrote on this page, the thing that drew me to it — the reason I’m writing this post here on my blog — is that one side contains notes on various forms and eras of poetry (there’s a reference to the god Muse and to Petrarchan sonnets, something called a “child poem,” and a kind of self-punishing “biting truant poem,” which might be a reference to Philip Sydney: ““Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: / ‘Fool!’ said my muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.'”); the other side of the page is a kind of rough-draft journal poem, part love poem and part frustration at the inability to write a poem.

Here’s what the back side of the page says, as best as I can read it:

Looking and [something stricken out] desiring to show my love in a poem
That the dear will appreciate my efforts and pain of writing
Out of pleasure she may read, and by the reading
she may know, I may win her pity by this.
[missing] and gain her favor, I looked for
[missing] illustrate my feelings — searching
[missing] please her — often reading others
[missing] ideas that I lack

[missing] words limp forth causing me to continue
to search for words

Others poems do not seem to help me.

Thus trying hard to write
Biting pen — should be writing — beating self for spite
Look in heart and write — write from the heart.

What a fabulous artifact to find in our attic! And how apt that of all the detritus of previous lives lived in this home’s nearly 90-year history, the one scrap I find is literary and love-lorn.

And how hard this poet worked! The slight revisions — and eventual frustrations — of the poetry-side of the page would be impressive enough, but the other side contains so much research into how to go about such a poem! I do so hope that “the dear will appreciate [the poet’s] efforts and pain of writing,” because whoever wrote this page worked hard at this, and that effort and pain is beautiful.

The music I listen to as I write

As is my wont, I’ve been been listening to music as I work on my current novel, and I’ve begun building a playlist of songs that are either keeping me in the mood of my book or else directly inspiring passages or even whole chapters of my novel. So I thought I’d share some of the songs I’ve been listening to the past few weeks as I rework this book of mine.

These are not period-correct — my novel is set between the late 1860s and the late 1890s — but whether by tone or by lyric, these songs (in no particular order, though privately, I do have an order in mind) are definitely feeding my work lately.

For the record, I much prefer the Townes Van Zandt version of “Waiting Around to Die,” but for some reason, this rendition feels right for what I’m writing. Still, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t also share the Van Zandt version:

I’ve long been a fan of the Civil Wars, for a whole range of fairly obvious reasons. But I’m a fan just because I’m a fan — they were amazing while they lasted — so I wasn’t expecting to include them in this playlist. But then this song cropped up and I started paying attention to the lyrics and I realized this song speaks at least sideways to an important relationship in my novel, so onto the list it goes!

This next song deals a lot with nautical imagery, and I hadn’t planned on any of my characters setting out to sea. But then, I don’t know that I’m done with Capt. Brewster, a super-background minor character from Hagridden who gets a reference in my story “Jarabe” and gets his own story in “The Voices Captain Brewster Heard.” So maybe he makes an appearance in this new novel, or maybe he doesn’t but one of the other characters goes to sea anyway, or maybe none of that happens and the “sea” voyage is just a metaphor. I haven’t found out yet. But I do know that this song’s late line, “Just because you caught me, does that make it a sin?” kept ringing in my ears, so I had to include it:

This is just a starting place, of course. This playlist will keep expanding as I keep exploring music, and I definitely want to add some period-appropriate songs to the mix. Because my novel takes place mostly in the 1890s, it is awfully tempting, for example, to include some version of “Daisy Bell,” and because I’m such a fan of Mark Ryden‘s art and I already have one Nick Cave song on my playlist, I really feel like I have to share Cave’s rendition of “Daisy Bell” that he made for Mark Ryden’s “The Gay Nineties” exhibition:

(As an old Metallica fan, I’m also enjoying Kirk Hammett’s version, and folks, let me tell you, if you can manage to play them at the same time, the result is weirdly amazing. Start with Hammett and let it run for about 30 seconds, then fire up the Cave. Blame your nightmares on those guys, not me.)

But really, even these modern takes don’t fit at all with the tone of the story I’m telling, so I’ll have to keep looking for period tunes.

Got any suggestions? I’m all ears!

“It’s a real privilege to have talented friends”

Back in spring of 2015, I was looking for fresh material to bring into my composition classroom, and I happened to have a batch of students who were itching to break out of the essay rut and write in response to some literature. So I shared some widely-anthologized essays and some interesting editorials from major newspapers, but I also offered them an essay by my friend Monica Drake, an essay by my friend Chloe Caldwell, and a trio of poems (this one, and these, if I remember right; I might also have shared one of these) by my friend Brianna Pike. My students loved the work — a few students interested in examining their local neighborhoods wrote their own versions of Monica Drake’s essay, the whole class spent quite a lot of time debating the inner workings of Chloe Caldwell’s story and one student attempted to emulate Caldwell’s structure, and a few students latched onto Brianna Pike’s poems — one even donated to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project that Bri was participating in, and Bri wrote a poem especially for that student.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 10.42.06 AMThe other day, Bri reciprocated by bringing my story “Lightning My Pilot,” from Where There Is Ruin, into her own classroom. Which is a HUGE thrill for me — from my earliest daydreams of being a writer, I have held as one of my highest standards of success the idea that I might get taught in someone’s classroom. This has especially been the case from my undergrad days, when my own professors either brought visiting writers into the classroom (writers are just ordinary human beings? I was floored) and/or were authors themselves. The idea that, as a student, I could meet and interact with actual, living writers thrilled me, and it was no great leap to begin dreaming of the day when I could be that writer meeting and interacting with students.

That’s one reason I made it a goal, early in my teaching career, to bring the work of friends and colleagues into my own classrooms. I began this back in my teaching-assistant days, inviting grad school classmates like poet Steve Bowman into my undergrad literature courses to discuss poetry; and in my first years of post-graduate teaching, I made a point of working Tom Franklin (whose debut collection Poachers was the subject of my masters thesis) into any class I could. I’ve taught poems by Beth Ann Fennelly and Robert Lashley, essays and memoirs by Kevin Sampsell and Kristen Keckler, short stories by Leesa Cross-Smith and Ryan Werner, craft textbooks by Jesse Lee Kercheval and Bill Roorbach. I teach these texts because they’re wonderful works that I genuinely admire and feel students can learn a lot from, but I also have at least a passing acquaintance with these writers and I know from my own days as a student how much students can learn from the writers themselves. So when I can, I bring these writers into the classroom, either in person or via the internet, and when that’s not possible, I can at least speak to my own relationship with these writers’ works.

And that’s the real benefit, I think — the proximity to working writers and their brains. It’s certainly one of the most valuable things I got in my own undergrad and graduate education, and it’s something I have wanted to replicate for my students (and for myself — I still learn so much from these encounters with writers!).

But it is a special thrill when I get to be on the other end of that exchange, the writer whose work is under discussion in a classroom. This moment in Brianna Pike’s classroom this week wasn’t my first experience with this — I visited Bri’s creative writing class at Ivy Tech in Indiana while on tour for Hagridden back in 2014. Steve Bowman has Skyped me into his classroom at Indiana University-Southeast. Poet Russell Brickey has taught a few of my short stories at Youngstown State University, and I’ve answered his students’ questions about the work via email exchanges. I’ve also visited the classrooms of friends at colleges and universities in Oregon, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Abu Dhabi, and my own undergrad alma mater of Schreiner University back in Texas — in fact, I visited the classroom of Kathleen Hudson, in whose classes I had first encountered writers like Kirpal Gordon and Paula Underwood when I was Kathleen’s student.

So thank you, Brianna Pike and all my other colleagues who’ve been kind enough to bring my work into your classrooms. It is literally a dream — the dream — come true.

And dear readers: if you teach a class and want to use my work, drop me an email and I’ll try to set you up with copies via my publishers! Also feel free to email me about classroom visits, because I love talking with learning writers!

The Watchman that Harper Lee set for me

9780062409850This weekend, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

I’m not going to revisit the speculation or controversy about its discovery and publication — I’ve written about that elsewhere — except to concede that this does feel like the unpolished draft of a novel, just as most of us expected it would be.

But oh, what a draft it is.

I will agree with some critics who argued that it deserved more polish than it got, and I will also agree with the many fans who complain that it doesn’t hold a candle to To Kill a Mockingbird. I will also offer here that my reactions to this book are colored by two situations: 1) I listened to this as an audiobook, and Reese Witherspoon does a fine job of selling the story she reads; and 2) whether by accident or synchronicity, I wound up reading this at exactly the right time.

In fact, that was probably my first thought on nearing the end of the novel: that whatever the circumstances that brought it out of hiding and onto the bookshelves, it never would have made as much sense as it does right now. Had this book appeared before To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first), or on the heels of it, the impact would have been minuscule at best. But now, all these decades later, when our collective cultural consciousness has had time to build up the mythic figure of Atticus Finch into the same hero-god that the adult Jean Louise has herself come to worship, only now are we ourselves prepared to feel — to viscerally experience — the same sense of disillusionment as Jean Louise does in this book when our beloved Atticus Finch turns out to be — to have always been — so much lesser than we thought him. (That isn’t much of a spoiler, widely reported as it was when the book first came out, but I’m trying to avoid other spoilers in this review. Suffice it to say, Atticus isn’t the only major character you will come to see much, much differently in this book, and each time, the change is almost as heartbreaking — but to my mind just as necessary — as it is in Atticus. So bear that in mind if you choose to read the book.)

And then there are the politics of the novel. One of the shortcomings of this book is that characters are prone to politicking on the page, drifting into long, preachy monologues that feel heavy to my contemporary ear and violate all sorts of givens we’ve come to understand about dialogue and modern fiction. And taken in the time the book was written, those passages would probably have felt even more heavy-handed, a lecture more than a novel. And yes, I do tend to have an allergy to such blatant bias in fiction.

But it is downright eerie — uncanny — unnerving, really — the way the novel’s politics speak to our times now. One only need change the racial slurs (or, more disturbingly, one could leave the slurs exactly as they are) and this could be a novel about the 20-teens as much the 1950s. Which is a terrible thing to consider. One of the most crucial arguments late in the book deals with the speed of social progress and some people’s fierce resistance to it — if not to the progress, then certainly to the speed of it. Things were changing too damned fast and it was bound to end in violence, or so the argument went. But to read this now, to realize that in some ways we are still fighting for that same progress while so many others fight hard and vicious to undo what progress we’ve made, is downright chilling.

There is also the “you can’t go home again” aspect of the story. Because I grew up in the South and still return to my own small(ish) hometown to visit the family that still lives there, I found much to identify with in Jean Louise. Her frustrations at the limitations of the people she grew up with, and then her frustrations with her own limitations in seeing her friends and family and lovers as whole human beings — that fraught interchange between a yearning for home and a revulsion toward home, that chestpain breaking point where you realize everything you once loved not only is gone but was never there to begin with, and then the eggshell creep toward a whole new kind of appreciation (maybe even love, of a sort) for your community as it truly is, warts and all — this is the kind of stuff I love best in literature and try to write about myself when I can manage it. Especially when it deals with the South. But, as Go Set a Watchman itself points out, confronting that takes a certain kind of maturity, a certain perspective that takes time and distance to develop. And I don’t know that I would have been ready to see that on these pages, with these characters, had this book come out years ago.

So, much of my positive response to the novel is, I admit, a matter of timing and perspective more than it is a matter of Lee’s craft and the book’s literary merit. On those latter terms, the book does feel lacking. I don’t take as much issue with the plot as some critics have, or even with the writing (there are some powerful passages in this book, paragraphs and character exchanges that left me exclaiming aloud in awe). But some of the most important points of character development occur in speechy, expository dialogue or in the kind of running interior monologue that has always rubbed me the wrong way, like voiceover in a film. And if I’m honest, I’m not wholly satisfied with the ending.

But then, perhaps that’s part of the point, that dissatisfaction. The imperfection of the story’s resolution feels as disappointing as any reality would when measured against our expectations, and I, for one, have always preferred the realistically unsatisfying over the novelistically resolved.

And in a way, that seems to speak not only for the narrative but also for the book as an artifact of publishing and American letters: Harper Lee’s second novel was never going to feel as satisfying as her first, whether it came out as her “sophomore effort” shortly after To Kill a Mockingbird or it came out as it did, as a kind of manufactured “comeback” or “final word” from the author. Those critics and complainers who, like Lee herself for most of her life, would rather this book have never seen the light of day, perhaps they were right.

But I’m glad I read it. For all its flaws, it still speaks loudly to our human condition, it still speaks softly to my own heart, and it still stands strong as a work worthy of study, even if only in an academic, writer’s-craft sense. So I’m glad I read it, and the next chance I get to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in a classroom, I would certainly assign Go Set a Watchman alongside it. There are lessons we can learn here — about writing, about publishing, and certainly about ourselves — and, painful and occasionally disappointing as it might be, I’m glad this novel is part of my world now.

Portland book porn

WS2017-Cover_REVISED_1-8-front-2-430x640This afternoon, I sojourned once again into Portland. My destination was the Another Read Through bookstore, where I gave a reading with some of my fellow writers in the current issue of The Timberline Review.

But by happy (or, more accurately, bittersweet) accident, this is also the final weekend for Portland’s beloved Reading Frenzy indie bookstore — the owner, Chloe Eudaly, was elected to Portland’s City Council this past November, which is a wonderful thing for the city because she is a fierce advocate for Portland’s renters and homeowners; but as a new City Commissioner, she has to divest from her small business to avoid conflicts of interest, and Reading Frenzy is something of an institution in Portland, so its absence from Portland’s book scene will be widely mourned. So of course I took the opportunity to stop into one of my favorite Portland bookstores one last time, where I browsed the zine shelf and wished Chloe Commissioner Eudaly the best in her new position.

I picked up two little zine-like chapbooks at Reading Frenzy: Bob Schofield’s The Inevitable June, and Melissa J. Price’s Not Enough Cloth to Cover Such Love.


20170401_194406It helped that Another Read Through and Reading Frenzy are both on Mississippi Ave. (yes, Portland is so replete with awesome little bookstores that they often inhabit the same streets); it also helped that Mississippi Ave. is in what used to be my neighborhood when I lived in Portland, so between Reading Frenzy and Another Read Through is Bridge City Comics, the place that used to be my local comic book shop, which I also stopped in at. Just yesterday, my new local comic book shop, Stargazer Comics in Tacoma, hosted a Women in Comics celebration, where I picked up the first trade volume of Pretty Deadly. (The writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick, is a Portlander herself — are you sensing a trend in all this?) Actually, I had originally picked up the first issue of Pretty Deadly, but thumbing through it in the store, I knew this magical-realism violent Western was right up my alley (and would fill a hole I’m currently feeling while awaiting the next trade volume of my other favorite quasi-Western East of West as well as the second trade volume of DeConnick’s other series, Bitch Planet), so I put down the single issue and grabbed the first trade volume instead. I was right about the series; I’m already hooked, so today I popped into my old Portland comic shop to find the second trade volume (which I’m about halfway through now).

20170401_194402Of course, at Another Read Through, I had to snag another book or three, too. It started when I arrived early to the store and spied on the shelf a copy of a book I’d read way back in my undergrad New Testament course, for an essay I was writing on the historical Christ: Marcus Borg’s controversial but seminal Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Then poet Devon Balwit, who also read at this afternoon’s event, announced that she had copies of her latest chapbook on hand, so I grabbed How the Blessed Travel. And then, browsing the back issues of Timberline Review, I discovered an essay by my friend Kate Ristau, so I wound up leaving the bookshop with not only my own current issue but also the first issue of Timberline Review.


Of course, these weren’t my only literary endeavors today: taking advantage of the long drive down to Portland, I also listened to the audiobook of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman — but that was significant enough that I’m devoting a full post to my review of it, so look for that first thing next week! (Sneak preview: Reese Witherspoon is definitely a Southern gal. She nails the reading.)



Upcoming events this spring

I’ve got a few events coming up on the calendar, folks, if you’re in America’s Pacific Northwest and want to come out to say hi.


The first isn’t so much an event of mine as an event I’m attending: my local arts and literature community, Creative Colloquy, is celebrating their third anniversary this coming Monday. I’m not on the official line-up, but I might try to hit the open mic; I might even read my story “An Understanding,” which appeared in Creative Colloquy’s online magazine a few months ago. I’m also contributing a copy of Hagridden to a prize basket — full of books by local writers/Creative Colloquy contributors — for the evening’s raffle, so if you want to grab a bucket o’ books, that would be a great opportunity to do so!

WS2017-Cover_REVISED_1-8-front-2-430x640Then a couple of weekends later, on April 1, I’ll be at Another Read Through in Portland, from 1:30-3 pm, for the Timberline Review Poets & Writers Read event. My story “Ashfall” was in their Winter/Spring 2017 issue, and this one is a good, old-fashioned print magazine, gang so if you want a copy, you’ll have to order one online or else come out to Another Read Through and pick one up. They make it worthwhile, of course — in addition to some wonderful poets and writers in the issue, Timberline Review and Another Read Through are also offering wine and appetizers! It’s a lit party. Come celebrate.



And then, a few weeks after that, I’ll be down in Lacey, WA, to join my friend Alec Clayton for the Local Author Spotlight at the Lacey Timberland Library. Alec is a fellow Southern transplant (he’s from Mississippi; I grew up in Texas), so we’re going to talk Southern fiction: you’ll not only get a chance not only to hear us read, but you can also ask us questions or — because we’re both Southerners and this is what we do — just sit around and shoot the breeze with us. We’re going to hang out from 5:30-7 pm, and I can promise that if you let us, we’ll talk your ears off in that time.

I’m looking forward to all these events, and here’s hoping I run into some of you in the next month or so!

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