Chatter in the Void, Vol.1

Why blog? Why, especially, about something so grueling, nonsensical, and potentially even humiliating as trying to sell a book you somehow decided was worth 14 years of your life?

Well, when’s the last time you were likened to a bighorn sheep, for starters?

Tremendous thanks for that one, Kay Murphy (see comment on Baby Steps, below), and to everyone who has taken the time here or on my website or my facebook page to send feedback and encouragement and suggestions about this blog and the future of The Book of Bunk. Your humble host-sheep has decided that these Void-Chatter response-posts will be a regular feature from here on out.

About your “American Idol” for writers idea, Kay: it actually has been done. Not on television, but online. Amazon and Penguin are running the 2009 version right now, and calling it the Breakthrough Novel Award. Basically, you post sections of a book. People vote. Every little while, low vote-count books are escorted off the website into the ether. Last novel standing gets a contract.

I’m all for it, in theory. That is, I’m for anything that gets any new writer a chance to have his or her work read, and maybe even published, at the moment.

Of course, this contest isn’t really for the writers any more than “Idol” is for the performers. It’s for Amazon and Penguin. One virtually foolproof way of ensuring that at least one novel they publish next year will have built-in buyers. And it seems likely to breed a certain crassness, a taste for the shill as opposed to an attention to and love of craft amongst writers. On the other hand, if you’re not up to the shilling (“Hey,” notes some clever reader of this post at this moment, “Isn’t this very blog kind of a…”), and you consider yourself above the crassness…well, I hope you and the rest of your private bighorn herd enjoy what you’ve done, because no one else is likely to see it.

Megan, the Stephanies, Craig, Kelly, Eric, Pete, Mom and Dad, David, Courtney, Jen, Jonas, Amanda, Gabe, Gregg, Monique, all of you who’ve taken the time to write me or to blog about this on your own pages or to tweet about something you’ve read here or to warn me against rash acts of publishing derring-do (or to egg me on), you have no idea how welcome your voices are, echoing off the rocky walls of the valley where I appear to have wandered.

Perhaps the most fascinating note I have received so far about this blog comes from a wonderfully articulate, thoughtful Serb who has written me several lovely and provocative notes over the years. This fellow is needlessly shy about his (excellent) English, and therefore reluctant to post publicly here. But in one recent e-mail, he had this to say about one of the not-intros to Bunk that I posted a month or so ago:

Maybe it’s the same all over the globe, but I hope you realize how eastern european this sounds like. During fifties and sixties we had writers in Yugoslavia who specialized in war literature, filmmakers who were sponsored by the state to produce uplifting, socialistic features about ‘common workers’ or ‘talented, but strayed individuals who put themselves in front of the rest of the nation and were somehow punished for that’, we had composers who calculatedly invoked ethnic pathos to their operas and symphonies, in order to ‘lessen the abstract component of the art and get it closer to the common man’. My mother and father lived their whole life in such a regime, and although it’s gone now, i can easily identify with it.

And here I thought I’d finally written a novel so hopelessly committed to its uniquely American solipsism that even Americans might want to read it.

In all seriousness, though, I’m thrilled to find echoes of some strain of Eastern European writing in my own, because certainly, the tragicomic, mesmerizing work of authors such as Tibor Dery, Danilo Kis, Jerzy Kosinski, Bohumil Hrabal, Geza Csath, Stefan Grabinski, and so many others have been a massive influence on me. That region has also provided me with the most fertile ground for literary discoveries on the planet (outside of Canada– go figure). I will be forever grateful to Ivan Sanders, the marvelously enthusiastic and kind professor at Columbia, who introduced me to this phantasmagoric, devastated, love-swept literary wonderland. And told me that I wasn’t the writer I needed to be in order to walk there, yet.

Keep the comments and notes and ideas coming, y’all. Feed the sheep. The chatter isn’t just reassuring. It’s inspiring.

Baby Steps

Today– 24 hours after a complicated but decidedly reassuring conversation with Paul Miller, the passionate and clear-eyed founder/director of Earthling Publications, and more on that as developments warrant — I find my thoughts revolving, endlessly, around Jill Sobule, a pleasant-enough songwriter. And Kristin Hersh, still sometimes a dazzling songwriter. And Paul Williams, founder of Crawdaddy, who loves Bob Dylan more than you, or me (and I love him, too), and certainly more than Bob.

In April, Jill Sobule is going to release an album she financed entirely through fan Paypal contributions on her website. Perks– aside from the existence of the album itself– included guest-singing slots on the record for large contributions, and living-room concerts for almost-as-large contributions.

Last year, Kristin Hersh’s zealous and long-lasting fanbase bought her the custom guitar she’d always wanted after a brief campaign. Hersh has spent the last several years experimenting with a direct and two-way artist-audience relationship, posting not just songs but stems that invite listeners to remix her music,  cutting out labels entirely, and allowing contributing listeners to track the development of each new piece through posted demos and alternate drafts.

Before re-starting his legendary, seminal rock music criticism mag, Crawdaddy!, as a web-only journal, Paul Williams successfully lobbied his fans for financial support as he hammered away at his life’s work, an exhaustive and original and sometimes brilliant assessment of every musical move every single one of the Bob Dylans has made.

These people and these developments fill me with admiration. And they make me uneasy. They inspire me, and they scare me to death.

The admiration/inspiration part is easy, and obvious. There is a part of me that desperately wants simply to hang out my shop shingle right here on this site– all the Bunk you can eat, wrapped in your choice of covers and also available for download– and see what happens. I am seriously considering a preliminary step such as a pledgeless, moneyless pledge drive, just to gauge interest and offer an extended glimpse at the opening of the novel. Details on that when and if I decide to do it.

The fear is easy and obvious, too. Throw a party, no one comes, that’s bad. Throw a free web-party and offer samples for nothing and no one drops out of the ether and asks for one… that starts to sound like qualification material for the Ed Wood Really-You-Thought-You-Could-Do-This? Society. Sobule, Hersh, and Williams all have had long careers sustained at least in part by small(ish) but rabidly loyal fanbases. Sometimes I think I have one of those, too. It’s too bad so many of its members apparently speak Russian.

Harder to create that artist-audience direct connect.

But I have misgivings, too. And I can’t tell if they stem from cowardice, or something else. Maybe I’m just afraid.

Maybe I’m not quite ready yet to let go of the notion– drummed into us by critics, editors, agents, parents, colleagues, universities with tenure to offer, the whole publishing machine as we know it– that only selling the book to someone else (and preferably a New York someone else) constitutes an honest and legitimate sale.

Maybe I fear the fragmentation of the literary world. Look at the music industry. There is probably more good and varied recorded music proliferating out there than at any time in history. And less discussion of most of it. Even– I greatly fear– less interest in it. Because there’s no central marketplace of ideas (to paraphrase Al Gore from his excellent book of a couple years ago). Remember that Lester Bangs essay about the death of Elvis? “Along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence… [W]e will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

Maybe I’m too ornery an artist to offer the opportunity to name a character in exchange for a $200 pledge, and am uncertain of likely takers for living-room readings. Even if I bring my Rolling Dark pal Pete and our traveling lights.

Or maybe there’s a part of me that, rightly or wrongly, has learned to place a peculiar sort of trust in the unwieldy, maddening, soul-crushing, money-draining process of selling my writing. With all three of my existing (see, there I go again– I mean published)  books, some small or not-so-small thing has happened along the way– a suggestion from my agent, a compromise with an editor that turns out to be a wise one, one last two a.m. revelation– that has not only made the work better, but has allowed the work to finish the process of separating itself from me. Of becoming itself, getting up on its own legs, and walking out into the world to meet whatever awaits it.

And maybe what I’m referring to above is the last vestiges of a process that no longer exists, and can no longer be trusted.

End note: I know logging in to this blog to leave comments is a pain. But weeding through thousands-deep spambot comments again to find the two legitimate ones is more than I can bear. So if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. This particular marketplace of ideas is officially open for business. And it’s staying open. Even if I’m not entirely sure yet what or how we’re going to be selling.

Cold Dog Soup

What’s worse– no, not worse, but harder– than a week with rejections? A silent week, of course.

By this time next Saturday, several things will have happened. Maybe. I will have heard, definitively, from a couple more people in New York. I will have had a chat with a longtime professional partner and just maybe hatched radical plan #1 for the publishing of The Book of Bunk. It’s very possible, if I sense the interest from you all, that I will hatch radical plan #2 right here on this page. That one may lead to the posting of the first sample from the novel, so you can finally see for yourselves whether all this blather is worth the ether it’s floating on.

This week, I waited. I finished my new story Monday, and I can’t start the next one– very different, playful, wait ’til I tell you about it, no ghosts but some magicians and a tow truck and the revenge of Glen on valet parking– until I’m finished grading my students’ end-of-quarter stories. Classes are over, which means all that marvelous, rejuvenating student energy has also gone out of the days. No one has abbreviated my name in some appalling new way (H-Dog, Hirsh-blurg, Proffo) in more than 72 hours, except on Facebook, and I’m not counting that yet. Just hasn’t Kindled the same response in me. There’s no real spring break on the quarter system employed by CSUSB, just a stretch of quiet that nags more than it soothes. The only cure I know for worrying over the fate of the writing I’ve completed is to write more. And since I can’t yet, I’m drifting.

Yesterday, I gave a talk via teleconference to a class at the University of Ottawa about The Snowman’s Children. The students asked excellent questions, and the hour passed glitchlessly, pleasantly. Until the end, when one dark-haired head-back (the camera in Ottawa was aimed toward the professor’s desk at the front of the room, so all I could see of the students was their very stylish, Francophone headbands) asked that most inevitable and familiar and important of student queries: “What advice would you give to a new writer just starting out about getting published now?”

And the answer that fell out of my mouth was, “Run.”

That got a little laugh. Enough of one for me to recover myself. Smile, as if I’d meant to be funny. In a way, I did. I started to say what I always say– do the writing, all the time; never say no for anyone; keep the rejections or don’t, but get your work back in the mail or someone’s e-mail in-box the second it is returned to you; hang around; write some more, every single day– and then I stopped. And I think I smiled. And I said, “It’s going to be hard. And you’re probably going to have to be as creative about that as you are in producing the work.” And then I said, “It’s worth it, anyway. Do the work. Keep writing.”

And the thing is, I still meant it. Do you know the Guy Clark song from which I filched the title for this post?

“There ain’t no money in poetry

That’s what sets the poet free

I’ve had all the freedom I can stand,

You got your cold dog soup and rainbow pie

All it takes to get me by

Fool my belly ’til the day I die

Cold dog soup and rainbow pie…”

If you want to write– if you love it, and it fills your days, and you realize the wonder, the genuine joy, of attempting to make or at least impose a semblance of sense out of waking and breathing and loving and suffering and Facebooking and headbanding and drifting and dreaming– the writing itself will be enough.

It will even get you through weeks like this one.

Cold Comfort

Cold, as in Siberian, as you’ll see below.

And very real comfort, too. Though not quite enough. At least not yet.

This is what has been happening in every other corner of my writing life during the past month, while The Book of Bunk has traced its whistling, blind arc through the black void where New York publishing used to be, and which now resembles the sky near the end of last year’s “Doctor Who” finale where the stars are going out, one by one.

The stars not named Blagojevich or Niffenegger, anyway (and may both of them write books worthy of the money they’ve been handed):

1. Roughly eighteen months after the fact, I’ve been informed by the wonderfully thoughtful, literate, and kind Larissa Zhitkova (admirer of Henry Miller, translator of The Snowman’s Children and other, worthier works into Russian) that The Two Sams has debuted in Russia to solid sales and decidedly enthusiastic press from radio, print, and internet alike. Supposedly, I’ve been called “Lovecraft’s disciple” and have “outdone King or even Poe.” Best of all, if funding comes through– a huge if, given the world– I have been invited to give readings and talks at the Modern Book and Literature Centre and the University of St. Petersburg there, which will also give me a chance to research, rethink, and finally get right my nearly-there ghostly novel, Sisters of Baikal.

The Lovecraft/King/Poe comments are ridiculous, obviously. Not ridiculous enough for me to decline to mention them here, but still…

2. “Esmeralda,” my first story in a new series tentatively called “Book Depository Stories,” has been selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year, the book that will take the place of the late, lamented Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

3. “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” my story for last year’s Rolling Darkness Revue tour, was also apparently a strong contender for that book, and will soon be reprinted in Shivers VI from Cemetery Dance.

4. I’ve finished a new Book Depository Story called “After-words,” which I’m having my circle of readers take their chainsaws to before shipping it off for hopeful publication before the end of the year. (This is the single best piece of news, as far as I’m concerned; the first totally new thing since I finished Bunk, and the only work to clear my head of everything else since then.)

5. The fine people with my novella, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival,” currently under film option, wrote with their latest plans. “Mr. Dark 3-D,” anyone? I know my son liked the idea. How do I know? He hopped, that’s how.

6. “After-words” marks the final story I needed to complete The Janus Tree and Other Stories, my next collection, which I will be shaping and sending off within a week or two.

That’s a good month, for me. A great month. A month rife with evidence that I do in fact have a career, that there are at least some people out there who are interested in what I do.

I also know the following things:

1. Of all the insane times to try to sell a novel (and they’re all mad), this may be the worst.

2. The surviving New York editors mostly are functioning under professional death threats: buy the wrong book, join the water-cooler chat at the guillotine.

3. For better or worse, The Book of Bunk has no obvious ragingly successful best-seller which it strongly resembles.

4. Even if it was a straight rip of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, I have a three-volume Bookscan record that doesn’t add up to 50,000 copies. Lots of nice press, some lovely prizes. That’s all.

5. Even if no one, anywhere, buys Bunk, one of the wonderful smaller presses who have been so brave with and good to me will pick up The Janus Tree, and so I will have a new book soon, one way or another.

6. The Book of Bunk will come out. And not too long from now. Because radical options are surfacing all over the place. And I’m damn near ready to jump and swim for one.

7. Very little of the work stamped by the current cadre of tastemakers in New York as either great literature or a great read proves to be either, for me, so it’s unrealistic to hold out much hope that those same people will suddenly turn around and anoint my work.

8. For twenty years, I’ve been telling my students –and myself– that the work itself is the only thing that matters. Prizes are lovely, but you don’t want to peek too closely behind the curtain at the processes that produce them. Ditto for good reviews. Ditto for bad ones. The reason most of the writers I know, contrary to popular myth, are among the healthiest people I know is that most of them have realized that they have no choice but to accept that they’re going to have to assess their own worth for themselves. This is something I truly believe. Believing it has helped me build a life I would not trade to be one of the last stars left.

9. I know– in a way I have never known before in my entire career– that The Book of Bunk is a book worth reading. Worth talking about. Worth arguing over.

10. I know that when it does come out, little about my life will change. But there will be readers here, and in the Balkans, and in Germany, and in France, and in New Zealand, and in Russia, who will be happy to see it, and who will write to tell me blunty and directly what they think. Because they have with everything else I’ve written.

And these aren’t things I have to remind myself of. They aren’t even things I believe.

I know them.

So why can’t I sleep?

Russian Village, Canadian Women

Not far from my home, there’s a single, short block of stone-and-brick-and-shingle houses tucked back amid the cactus and the citrus trees. A sign proclaims the place “Russian Village,” though it’s hardly a village and, as far as I know, not a single Russian ever lived there.

The story goes that in 1923, a young Pole named Konstany Stus bought a few parcels of land just outside the town of Claremont. When the Depression hit, according to Elizabeth Pomeroy in her guide book, Lost and Found (which comes remarkably close to painting the Inland Empire as a cornucopia of hidden marvels, and is therefore a marvel in itself), Stus then sold off his land to families for $10 a month, payable whenever the families could pay. Together, using materials salvaged from anywhere and everywhere, they began building one another’s houses.

Material really did come from all over. When an earthquake leveled sections of Long Beach in 1933, Stus was there with trucks to collect rubble. He picked sandstone from a demolished courthouse in Los Angeles, scraps of wood from the Claremont Colleges construction sites, old telephone poles,  slabs of shattered sidewalk destroyed in the flood of 1938. No one in the neighborhood had an architectural plan, or any artistic vision to impose on the rest of the group. This was suburban development with no Model House, no homeowners association, no granite countertop buy-in bonus. The only guiding principle was to create a place. Make homes to live in.

What they made is a place, alright. A block of gray houses with decks that blossom from unexpected corners, yards of chipped stone that flow from the gaping cave-mouths of garages wide enough to have served as carriage houses or barns, roofs of shingle here, tile there. The more you stare at the houses, the stranger they become, seeming to flicker in and out of tangibility right in front of you. It’s almost impossible to imagine real lives being conducted in these jury-rigged, lopsided, eerily beautiful structures. Even with the DirecTV dishes now sprouting like toadstools from the tiles, and the pick-up trucks and dusty blue Inifinitis in the stone driveways.

Bunk County, in The Book of Bunk, is an imaginary county invented by Grace Lowie, a disaffected novelist working for the Federal Writers’ Project.  Over a period of almost a year, Grace invites many of the farmers, mill-hands, shop owners, vagabonds, displaced housewives, truck drivers, and former slaves from the actual North Carolina mountain towns she and her colleagues are meant to be documenting to invent characters and alternate lives to populate the place. Eventually, Grace plans to slip Bunk County into the WPA Guide to the Old North State, where it will nestle quietly, a little mirage of nearly-credible lives set in almost-real locations that none of the motor travelers using the guide books will ever quite be able to find.

Just another Russian Village, in other words. A place that wasn’t ever a real place, except to the people who lived there. A patchwork quilt stitched from leavings. A salvage job.  Somewhere that was always at least as much a story to tell as a community to live in.

Sound like any countries you know?

One of the places I’ve been dreaming, lately, is situated somewhere in the great north woods. There are cabins, snowsqualls, winter winds, a town square. And every clear night, in between storms, the people lucky enough to live there take blankets and baskets of food (none of which is poutine–I don’t know what anyone up there was thinking when they came up with poutine) and camp under stars you can still see and wait for the Women to come.

There’s the shatteringly brilliant, austere, and dazzling Ann-Marie MacDonald, who wrote The Way the Crow Flies and Fall on Your Knees. There’s the grimly wry Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose wonderful books will never quite live up to their titles (The Cure for Death by Lightning, A Recipe for Bees).  A newcomer–just in my imaginary Canadian town, she’s actually been known in her own country for a decade or so–is Eden Robinson, the warmest, and just maybe the strangest, of the three. Her book, Monkey Beach has been my insomnia-companion this past week as I’ve wrestled with the self-doubt (not about my novel–not this time–but about my ability to sell it) that always accompanies the bludgeoning process of getting one’s writing into print.

What an odd, charming, loving, quiet, gorgeous book this is. A troubled sister, a dreaming brother lost at sea, good parents (what a rarity in the Age of Grief–good parents), endless stories, a sasquatch sighting that not only doesn’t wreck anything but somehow threads itself effortlessly into the tale.

What are they feeding their women authors up there? If I take back that crack about the poutine, do you think they’d ship some down?

Smiley’s People

Jane Smiley, that is. And the appellation is really unfair (although pretty cute) given what I’m about to post, because when she’s good, as in The Age of Grief, she’s among the very best representatives of a school of writing and thinking about writing that I’m going to disparage. And the truth is, I don’t actually object to this school of writing, or any school of writing. Whichever school gets your story written, well, that’s the fight song you should sing.

What I object to, always, in all creative arts, is hegemony.

And this particular hegemony has much to do, I think, with why The Book of Bunk is having a hard time finding a home during its first pass through New York.

I’m going to have to type that again, because I’m having trouble believing it. Accepting it. Because while I know that I am the last person on earth qualified to judge, I’m also right, in this case. And they’re wrong. People can argue– and I fully expect that they will, before too long– about whether I can get away with combining the elements that I combine in this novel. About whether it’s overambitious (though I think too many critics and editors have forgotten what ambitious fiction looks like). About whether all its interwoven stories finally form a cohesive tapestry. But to argue that it doesn’t deserve to be out in the world and part of the argument…I’m sorry, but it’s absurd. It will not stand. So I’ll try typing it once more:

The Book of Bunk is having a hard time finding a home in New York.

Nope. Didn’t help. Blogging about this process helps. I’ll do that.

In some later post, I may put up some of the responses I’ve gotten from editors. Not with attributions. Not to strike back. But because some of you preparing yourselves for your next submission probably need to prepare yourselves harder. Not today, though.

One of the only objections at least a couple of editors have raised– amongst many glowing, loving expressions of admiration for this book they don’t want or don’t think will sell enough– involves three short scenes in Bunk that take place during a U.S. Senate hearing. The objections run one of two ways: either the Senate scenes “aren’t realistic” or “strictly believable,” or else the fact that those scenes play out with overtly mythic overtones is problematic because Senate hearings on these subjects really did happen. Put more simply, the perceived problem is that the Senators involved seem outsized. Archetypal, even.

A few days ago, I realized I could conceivably cut those scenes. They constitute less than a 10th of the novel, and I could make the book work without them.

And then I thought about Smiley’s People.

American literary fiction, at the moment, is dominated by characters who are not only not larger-than-life, but smaller (it’s also dominated by a brand of magical realism so cold, joyless, self-consciously allegorical and/or wink-wink cute that it’s functionally neither, but that’s for another day).  Striving for the ruthless realism so successfully embodied in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, writers are redacting not just all trace of myth or uniqueness from their characters’ personalities, but also all hint of action that isn’t driven by self-interest. The thinking here goes that self-interest is the root of even the most altruistic human actions, that honesty and cynicism are the same thing, that fiction’s best goal is to confront us with characters who perfectly resemble the would-be adulterer (or child abuser, or bigot, or embezzler, or bored spouse, or exhausted parent, or entitled xenophobe, or jealous sibling, or hit-and-run driver) inside all of us.

Sometimes– in The Age of Grief, in good Carver– that so-called realism can ring with an authenticity and preciseness of insight that renders it mythic in spite of itself. And that’s when it’s great.

But I humbly submit that we don’t remember Ahab, or Bill Sykes, or Daisy Buchanan, or Bigger Thomas, or Huckleberry Finn, or Hester Prynne, or Philip Marlowe, or Aunt Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (who is often mistaken for a Smiley’s Person), or the Misfit, or Stephen Dedalus, or Stephen King’s Carrie, or Elizabeth Bennet, or Cormac McCarthy’s towering, ruthless, sketchbook-weilding, hairless judge, or even Rabbit, because they’re so realistic, or because they remind us exactly of ourselves and neighbors. We remember them because they are us plus wonder. Us writ large. Us making sense. Us outside of our own skins, but still us. Us in the way we most dream and fear ourselves. Us collectively, as a community, a nation, a species.

I say that’s what fictional characters are all about. What they need to be about.

And damn it, my Senators are staying put.

So Just What Sort of Bunk is This?

More details about the business of The Book of Bunk next post. I’d rather get to talking about the book itself.

About a month ago, just before we sent off the novel to the handful of major-press fiction editors in New York still claiming to be seeking new acquisitions, my agent and I had a spasm of panic. (In retrospect, it might have been better just to have the grand mal panic seizure and get it over with, but the jury’s still out, so we’ll pass that.) The concern was this:

For fourteen years, I’ve believed that if I ever got this novel done, it would be the very first thing I’d written that would be easy to categorize. No more nostalgic, wistful literary novels about serial killers who never appear. No more ghost stories about miscarriage’s effects on marriage. If this one got to the bookstores, people would know where to put it.

Somehow, my agent bought into that delusion, too. At least until I’d actually finished, and stepped back, and both of us realized what I’d done.

Turns out it’s another Glen Hirshberg book, alright. For better or worse. Another story rooted hip-deep in history that isn’t really a historical novel. An old-school adventure tale– complete with multiple romances, three separate fires, F. Scott Fitzgerald, railroad tramps, orphans, a haunted forest, Communists, a (possibly) imaginary country of shadows, and at least one murder– told by a narrator who thinks he’s an impostor (but isn’t) to the brother he believes is also an impostor (and might or might not be). A fairy tale with no magic (the book is in fact subtitled A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers’ Project); a page-turning thriller about sitting around telling stories. A book our narrator doesn’t want to write about the creation of a series of books no one wanted to write that just may have created the myth of America.

“Good God,” my agent said. “Write an introduction.”

I wrote two. The first was an attempt to situate the book in history, to explain what the Federal Writers’ Project was and why it’s almost scarily relevant to talk about right now. The second, a misfire that practically typed itself in italics, aims to establish the book’s strangely fable-like quality.

Neither one is going in the manuscript. The novel doesn’t need them. Or, put another way, the intros aren’t going to help. Whatever the hell The Book of Bunk is, it’s itself.

But that’s no reason not to post both introductions here. And if you actually read them, you’ll get the historical backdrop, alright. Plus an (over)dose of the fairy-tale flavor that is much more faint and elusive in the actual manuscript. And somewhere in the gigantic, unmapped country between them lies the imaginary North Carolina mountain town, and the haunted woods, and the great mythologized catastrophe of American history where The Book of Bunk lives.

How appropriate– you’ll see how appropriate soon, I hope and pray– that the first posted or published pieces of this novel aren’t actually in it…

Not-Intro #1

Even at the time, no one could agree on what it was meant to be or whom it was meant to serve. All of the Arts Projects established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the midst of the Great Depression and overseen by an umbrella agency bearing the oddly militaristic name of Federal One proved enormously controversial amongst politicians, employees, and ordinary citizens alike. But at least the Federal Art, Music, and Theater Projects produced creative art, music, and theater.

The Federal Writers’ Project, on the other hand, seemed designed from the very beginning to block the generation of any creative writing under its auspices. When Harry Hopkins, the director of and primary visionary behind the entire WPA, commissioned the Arts Projects, he hewed close to the whole program’s original principles: that work is fundamentally ennobling and essential for the human spirit, and that any work paid for by the federal government should have tangible and lasting economic, social, and cultural value.

The problem with hiring artists, of course, proved to be an ages-old one: how does one determine art’s economic, social, and cultural value, and who gets to say? At a time when a third or more of the nation’s population faced devastating impoverishment and unemployment, did anyone have the right to claim themselves an artist? Did the government owe those who did so an opportunity to make a living through their chosen professions? Could it make use of them?

In the case of the Federal Writers’ Project, the solution was a hedged bet, doomed from the outset to please no one. First, only ten percent or so of the people hired by the Project were writers. Researchers, teachers, academics, and numerous others who worked with the written word in one way or another also qualified, particularly if they were on the relief roles, as Project guidelines stipulated that 90% of the work-force had to come from those roles.

Secondly, and even more tellingly, the founders of the Writers’ Project conceived of a series of tasks– from interviewing the last surviving slaves to collecting regional folklore and data about immigrant communities rarely discussed, to that point, in mainstream American culture–designed to keep employees busy without being seen as frittering away precious public money on frivolous pursuits such as fiction or poetry. The heart of the Project became the American Guide Series, a massively ambitious and unwieldy effort aimed at compiling the first exhaustively detailed, informative, and useful travel books for motor tourists to every region in the nation.

The irony of sending out relief workers, many of whom could barely afford shoes, let alone cars or gas to run them, to compile and pen vacation guides was lost on no one. Many Project employees, already embarrassed to be forced onto relief, found themselves humiliated and frustrated by the demands placed on them and also overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

By 1937, meanwhile, members of Congress, deeply divided from the beginning of the WPA, found themselves reeling from intransigent recession and a brutal legislative fight over President Roosevelt’s plan to alter the conservative balance of the Supreme Court by adding a new Justice for each sitting Justice over the age of 70. They had also become increasingly alarmed by the activities of American Nazi and radical left groups, and saw in the Guides, and the Writers’ Project as a whole, opportunities for unconscionable waste at best and dangerous, even treasonous subversion at worst.

Predictably, given such origins and circumstances, the Federal Writers’ Project lasted as a fully functioning entity for only four years, from 1935-1939, though work continued on the Guides into the early 1940s.

The miracle, then, is not just that the FWP existed at all, but what it produced. The 48 books of the American Guide Series– slapdash, under-funded, politically slanted one way or another depending upon a region’s editors or writers, selective in their details and sometimes appalling in their prejudices and omissions– remain, even now, perhaps the most complete and illuminating portrait ever attempted of the United States as it existed at a single moment in time.

Of course, even before the WPA dissolved in 1943, the nation documented by the Guides had become a very different place. Most of the bureaucrats, politicians, and bureau chiefs who oversaw the Federal Writers’ Project, as well as the great majority of writers, folklorists, and teachers who staffed it, hoped it would be quickly forgotten.

But its rich, troubled, complicated legacy is one well worth remembering. The arguments it engendered or revealed are still with us, and its greatest achievement– the reluctant, impossible, very nearly successful mapping of the entire American landscape by its own people– is one we have never honestly attempted since. The Federal Writers’ Project in The Book of Bunk is not the actual Project but a dreaming echo, and it exists in an America that probably never was, and still might be.

Which brings us to:

Not-Intro #2

Then the dust came. It swept off the earth in great, teeming clouds and descended on the cities and towns and farms and plains. It choked machines and buried buildings. It drowned animals, and burrowed into the lungs of the people and sickened them. Even before the dust, there were few jobs, and little money. The people starved, and they struggled to save their homes. And when their homes were gone, and even the land on which they stood slipped from beneath them, the people gathered what remained of their possessions, and they took to the roads and railways.

And in the capital city, under the Great Dome, the beleaguered leaders of this once-proud land huddled, and in their desperation, they devised an impossible solution few of them liked: they themselves would put the people to work. They would build roads and bridges, parks and schools. They would plant trees and cultivate the earth, to keep the ground from rising. The coffers of the nation would empty. But the nation itself would survive.

And so it came to be. The farmers farmed. The laborers labored. And the call went out from the Great Dome to its artists that they should create music and murals and theatrical productions that would lift up and embolden the workers in their struggles.

But for its writers, the leaders had a different task. Go amonst the people, they said. And say what you see there…

The Book of the Book of Bunk–Intro and Welcome

What is this blog this time around, anyway?

A soap opera, maybe. “Hoosiers II,” except in North Carolina and with no basketball? A release of tension?  A whoop of joy (or is that terror)? A stream of babble? The Alamo?

For now, this is a chronicle about a book I spent fourteen years trying to get right. It’s called The Book of Bunk, and it’s done, now. Whether another fourteen years pass before any of you get to see it remains an open question.

Or not, actually. Because I’ve decided not to let that happen. The question is what I’m going to do about it. This blog is the first step. It will chart the history of this novel from this moment forward. I’ll be posting all sorts of tidbits about this book’s journey to wherever it’s finally going. Plus excerpts, maybe. Teasers. Contests. Sing-alongs (not a joke, that last. You’ll see).

Who would care?

Well, me, obviously. But of all the bad moments there’ve ever been to be a novelist–and really, they’ve almost all been bad–this may be the worst: the end of publishing as we know it; the end of bookstores; the end of print book reviews; very possibly the end of books, whether any of the people who read or write them want that or not. The end of novels, because who wants to read a novel or even a blog post this long on a Kindle unless one has to?

The worst of times, then.

Unless it’s the best. The moment there was finally so little chance of actually making the money that may or may not still exist in this field, so little hope of attaining the fame and respect that were always ephemeral, always at best half-earned anyway, that the remaining writers–and they are legion–just up and filled the air with stories. Like kites over India. Balloons over Del Mar. Airships over the North Pole.

What is this, then? An act of defiance? A raspberry? A prayer?

Six years ago, at the Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank where we had all the meetings that led to the creation of the Rolling Darkness Revue, Pete Atkins and Dennis Etchison and I were in the midst of another intensive planning session (or else Pete and I were trying to distract Dennis from talking about wrestling, I can’t remember which) when Dennis put down his burger, stroked his beard in a remarkably Parisian Left Bank sort of way, grinned, and said, “You know it’s all folly.”

Maybe that’s what this is. A folly, in every sense of that word:

An extravagant fake, built to commemorate a real book about a fake book that no one can even get their hands on yet.

A mistake.

A parade.

A celebration.

Welcome to Bunk County.  I hope you’ll like it here.