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! 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Battered scuzzy copies of the Cactus Eaters ...

Lately I've signed some seriously scary copies of my book. A few of them looked like somebody dropped them in a lake, rolled them down a hill, or cleaned their showers with them.  I signed them anyways. I am willing to sign anything except for a blank check. In other news, I'm heading to the Hoh rainforest very soon to spend time with the bugling elk and write about "quiet camping" for my new book. Also, thank you for your continued support of my first book. It keeps creeping along, slowly, inexorably, like a slimy but determined hermit crab at the bottom of the ocean.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Twenty years ago this week ...

... I prepped for the Pacific Crest Trail by baking boatloads of granola. Oh to be young & dunderheaded again. On that fateful week, I baked dozens of batches of appalling, inedible granola to take with me on the Pacific Crest Trail. Every time I stopped at a new trail destination, another enormous baggie  awaited me, spoiled cashews, burned oats, and all. Tehachapi? I opened up my supply box and out came a baggie of home-baked granola cinders. Kennedy Meadows? A mountain of scorched granola awaited me once again. The overwhelming bulk of it wound up in the "free pile." So if you're evem thinking of hiking the PCT right now, do me a favor and taste test everything before you ship it to yourself. And avoid sending perishable stuff with nuts that will turn  rancid and sour on you or buttered oats that will grow blue fuzzy stuff by the time you get to eat them.  Your taste buds will thank you. 

Monday, April 14, 2014