Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On my recent conversation with Toni Morrison and her upcoming appearance in Santa Cruz

Will go live very soon with my story about my recent talk with Toni Morrison about good and evil in the literary imagination. Since she covered so much ground in our talk, I am hoping to have an associated Q and A out as well. By the way, I also had a phone conversation with Angela Davis about Prof. Morrison's importance and influence (they have known each other for a long time and are good friends because Morrison was an influential editor at Random House, and worked hard to bring out uncompromising works by writers in the early to mid-1970s; she edited The Autobiography of Angela Davis and also brought out works by Toni Cade Bambara among others. Anyways, stay tuned -- and I'll post those links here when they are ready. I'm guessing they will be up here in a week or two. Here, by the way, is the link to hear appearances in Santa Cruz this coming October. As you've probably heard by now, the lecture and the dinner are now sold out completely but I believe the event is going to be streamed. When I get more info I will pass that along.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Back from climbing Mt. Whitney at 330 a.m.

My trusty Mag-lite helped me make my way through the inky High Sierra darkness. Had a fine time up there with the exception of that final ascent, which made me quite woozy and a tad nauseous. Went to Dominican yesterday evening for treatment of minor frostbite but I should be just fine. This is the last camping trip for the book with the exception of the upcoming RV tour of the southwest.  By the way, I enjoyed meeting JMT hikers out there and I gave three of them a ride out from Onion Valley to Bishop, where we all shared a good meal at a Mexican restaurant and went out separate ways. More soon.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A conversation about good and evil with Toni Morrison

A couple of weeks ago, I had a one-hour, six-minute and thirty-six-second conversation with Toni Morrison about good and evil in the literary imagination, in advance of her appearance out here in Santa Cruz, where she is going to talk about the silence of goodness in literature; on October 25, she will be here to deliver the Peggy Downs Ethics Lecture. I was kind of nervous at first -- you would be, too -- but she was wise, endearing and always thought-provoking (and also hilarious.)  I am at work on a feature story that I'm building around this recent conversation, and when it's good and ready, I will make sure to post the link right here on Cactuseaters. I am also putting together a supplementary piece with a Q & A format.  By the way, I should point out that the tickets for just the lecture are sold out right now but there are still 'combo' tickets for the event and the Founders Celebration dinner that evening, when Toni Morrison is set to receive the Foundation Medal.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On reading The Grapes of Wrath on its 75th anniversary


When I was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University in 2007-8, I used to drive my rattletrap of a car back and forth between San Jose and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with The Grapes of Wrath audiobook playing on my CD player. 

I listened to the book twice in a row, all 21 hours and five minutes of it in 42 installments. As the story unfolded, I projected the action onto the land in front of me. While an amoral used-car salesman ripped off desperate “Okies” on their way to California, my own jalopy leaked oil on Highway 280. When Noah Joad disappeared, I imagined him lost in the foothills above Palo Alto. Twice in a row the lapsed preacher John Casy got his head bashed by thug cops while I crossed Church and 22nd Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Casy said to his tormentors as I found myself trapped behind a stalled-out streetcar. To this day, that upscale neighborhood feels like a tragic place; the taint never fades. Never mind that The Grapes of Wrath took place worlds away, in the San Joaquin Valley.

To me, Steinbeck’s writing, at its best, is a lived experience. It doesn’t matter when or where you read or hear it. No matter how many times I revisit Grapes, I fool myself into thinking the Joads will find what they need in California.  John Casy will survive his confrontation with the police. The heartache and disappointment feel fresh every time. So does the shock of the book’s final image. 

Steinbeck believed in slow writing. It takes forever to get to California. We live through every mile with the Joads and their touring car, overstuffed with belongings and people and always on the verge of breakdown.

To mark the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, I got back in touch with my former colleagues at SJSU, including Paul Douglass, an English and American literature professor, and director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. “When I think of The Grapes of Wrath, I think of the remarkable way in which it embodies the agony and transcendence of its era,” he told me. “The dirt poor down low life of the transient population, uprooted and outcast, and yet at the same time, the luminosity of the human spirit revealed through the pressure of poverty and desperation.” I had a longer conversation with Shillinglaw, a recent President’s Scholar Award honoree, and a longtime professor of English and comparative literature at SJSU. She marked the 75th anniversary with her new book, On Reading the Grapes of Wrath (Penguin, $14.) Shillinglaw sat down with Catamaran to talk about the origins of The Grapes of Wrath and the reason it continues to enchant, infuriate and inspire generations of readers.   

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

coming soon from Catamaran Literary Reader: Beyond Wild: Gail Storey and Aspen Matis face the wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail

Coming soon from Catamaran Literary Reader at a bookstore or mailbox near you: the forthcoming issue of our magazine includes my brief essay on women facing the wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail, with a detailed Q & A with Gail Storey and Aspen Matis and with prominent mentions of Cheryl Strayed and Suzanne Roberts. There is no online version of the magazine at this time but you can find out where to buy it and how to describe by visiting us here.  Also, please get your hands on the current issue of Catamaran, which is another great one, with contributions from Paul Muldoon, an overlooked piece of writing from John Steinbeck, new work from Ursula K Le Guin and Nathaniel Mackey and my interview with Susan Shillinglaw about the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath's publication. I hope you're all having a good summer and I'll see you out in the mountains.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Camping Tiki is going to take over for a while

Going to take another little break for a brief spell. In my absence, The Camping Tiki is gonna take over. I hope you give him a warm welcome.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Cactuseaters Blog Tour


Thank you to my friend Samuel Autman for asking me to participate in the Blog Tour, in which a group of writers talk about their latest projects and share a few words about their writing process. So here I am, taking part and passing it on. Read here about Samuel's writing process. Here goes:

1. What are you working on? For the last couple of years I have been working on a book that is now under contract with Henry Holt & Company. The working title is Soaked to the Bone. It is an embodied history of American camping, meaning that I must participate -- enthusiastically, and sometimes dangerously -- in every form of camping I write about. I am using a combination of research and history and my own adventures to tell the story of recreational camping's evolution from the late 1860s to the present day. Along the way I explore the world of glamping, survivalist camping, Leave No Trace practices and RV snow birding, among others.  There will be a few outrageous scenarios and a blend of comedy and weirdness, ecology, adventure, and contemplation.

2.  How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre? I have an 'all in' approach. I try very hard to be honest and candid in a way that serves the story and cuts to the truth of the situation. I try not to worry too much about having a narrative voice that is 100 percent cuddly and likable all the time. I think some of the strength of the work lies in my candor, my willingness to 'go there' and not flinch. 

3. Why do you write what I do? I'm a fairly shy person -- depending on the situation -- and kind of a bookworm, so travel writing gives me a license to see the world, while my Olympus recorder and writing pads and pens give me a new identity that makes me feel more comfortable cold-calling people or walking up to them at campsites and taking down their stories, finding out about their camping process, and asking all sorts of pesky questions that would be hard to ask if I didn't have a project and a mission as an excuse. Writing really is a way for me to engage with life. Every so often i hear people gripe that certain writers seem to live through something just so they can write about it. A few people even said that to me after my first book, The Cactus Eaters, came out. That may be true for some writers, but what about the rest of us who write about something just so we can live through it? 

4. How does your writing process work? I have a gargantuan Word file that serves as a kind of rolling scroll or possibilities bag. I just shoehorn bits of research and daily thoughts in there, and i have other files with saved Proquest documents and database files, with notes riffing on them, and separate folders for interviews.  In the early phases, I imagine my process as a great big dredging net, dragging the ocean floor. I just try to spread the net as widely as possible. At some point when I feel I have sufficient 'stuff' -- enough recollections, enough interviews and context -- i start creating a separate file, and I start roughing out a structure. Sometimes I'll create a summarized version of the text -- a kind of short- story version -- and rough it out from the best stuff I've recovered from the Monster File. I never, ever get it right the first time. My first drafts are embarrassing -- horrible. 

I have invited a couple of great folks to participate in the Blog Tour. I hope you hear from them soon!