Friday, October 17, 2014

No more tickets (sorry)

hi everyone -- since my story with Toni Morrison came out, I've been getting a few inquiries about tickets for the Santa Cruz event -- at this point there are 200 people on the waiting list for any give-back tickets. On the plus side the event will be simulcast and I believe it will also be broadcast on KZSC FM. Will post the link to the simulcast soon.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Cactuseaters interview with Toni Morrison. (read it here.)

Here is my recent interview about good and evil in literature, among other things. The interview also includes a few words from Angela Davis, who will be introducing Professor Morrison during her upcoming sold-out lecture in Santa Cruz this month. (you can find the same interview online right here.)

At 83, Toni Morrison has no plans to retire. At this point in her career, that kind of drive has little to do with unmet goals; the Nobel Prize winner has written 10 novels, a play, and many nonfiction pieces. Her body of work, including the novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, is already part of the literary canon.

But Morrison, speaking by phone in her distinctive low, whispery voice from her home in New York's Hudson Valley, said she just can't be happy without a project. Her creative impulse and her desire for artistic freedom are as strong as ever.

"Writing novels is the world to me," she said. "The outside world can be OK or not OK, beautiful or not beautiful, but I am in control here," said Morrison, who still scratches out the first drafts of her novels with a pencil on yellow legal pads. "When I'm writing, nobody's telling me what to do. The expectations are high because they are mine, and that is a kind of freedom I don't have anywhere else. Nowhere."

While Morrison was a well-known literary figure before Beloved, that book's blockbuster success took her into the mainstream—a remarkable feat, considering the novel's unflinching look at slavery. Its main character, Sethe, based on real-life escaped slave Margaret Garner, kills one of her children to spare her a life of enslavement.

The impact of Beloved—and Morrison's writing output as a whole—cannot be overstated, said Angela Davis, the scholar, activist, and UC Santa Cruz professor emerita who will introduce Morrison at the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture.

Morrison, through fiction, has made social change, a feat many others haven't been able to accomplish through nonfiction writing and activism, Davis said.

"I don't think that our notion of freedom would be what it is without the impact of Toni Morrison."

Beloved "helped us think about U.S. history in an entirely different way," Davis said, and Morrison's specificity—including her elegantly crafted characters—helped change "the abstractness of the portrayal of slavery.… It became possible to humanize slavery, to remember that the system of slavery did not destroy the humanity of those whom it enslaved."

The two have been friends since the early '70s, when Morrison, while working as an editor at Random House, edited Davis's autobiography. During that period, Morrison was bringing out new works by uncompromising authors including the African American feminist writers Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones.

Morrison, once an outsider, went on to change the face of publishing, both as a writer and editor, said Paul Skenazy, professor emeritus of literature at UC Santa Cruz, who taught Morrison's work for years.

"At this point, more than a quarter century later, it's hard to remember how compact and insular the publishing world was before Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others made cracks in it," Skenazy said.

Morrison's book Song of Solomon is as smart and evocative as writing gets, Skenazy said.

"Her ability in that book to move across fantasy and the hard terms of black life; to turn folk stories into palpable mythologies that rule the everyday; to make a quest of forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded history: These are beautifully entangled in that book."

The silence of goodness
Writing gives Morrison more than the freedom to imagine worlds beyond her own. Her books allow her to explore a topic that has been tugging at her for more than 40 years, and which she will explore during the Santa Cruz lecture: "Literature and the Silence of Goodness."

Morrison believes an "obsession" with evil has crept into literature over the past century or so while the forces of good have been driven to the sidelines and compelled to bite their tongues.

Morrison thinks this preoccupation, which she credits in part to the horrors of World War I, also holds true in the media. She spoke of news reports that portrayed the Amish community as "freakish" when members of the religious group reached out to comfort the widow of an Amish man who took his own life after committing a killing spree that left five schoolgirls dead. TV broadcasts and newspapers "twisted" what Morrison considered to be a selfless refusal on the part of the community to seek vengeance.

She believes the media has a lurid obsession with things like mass killings, brazen kidnappings, and heinous abuse and neglect, and that it is simply "too easy" to let such forces dominate works of fiction.

Evil, she says, often has a superficial glamour in stories and novels: "I always think of evil with a top hat and a big band and a cape, a cane maybe, some shiny jewelry so you are very attracted by the glitter."

On the other hand, compelling portrayals of good are harder to pull off, Morrison said.

Nevertheless, "there really isn't anything else that humans ought to be cultivating and living for," she said. "The rest of it is petty and selfish: cartoonish almost."

She talks about her efforts to dramatize good without resorting to sentimentality. She mentioned the strong women who nurse an ailing woman back to health in her most recently published novel, Home. There is nothing warm or cuddly about these "country women who loved mean … They didn't waste their time or the patient's with sympathy and they met the tears of suffering with resigned contempt."

But these women are forces for good because they have an innate desire to heal and save lives. "When their maker said, 'What did you do?,' they didn't want to say, 'Well, uh.…'" Morrison said. "They had to answer."

Revealing revelations
Some readers may be surprised to hear Morrison's concerns about literary evil, considering its strong presence in so many of her books, which contain, among other things, a gang rape, gruesome depictions of slavery, and an act of infanticide.

Morrison concedes "there is a lot of sadness and melancholy among the people in my books," but "for me, there is always an ending in which somebody knows something extremely important that they didn't know before; the acquisition of knowledge is a gesture of mine toward goodness.

"The accumulation of events, theories, changes of mind, encounters, whatever is going on, at the end of the book, it tends to move toward some kind of epiphany that is a revelation of a better self."

As Morrison pointed out, during one horrific rape scene early in her novel Love, one character, Romen, refuses to participate and is shunned by his peers. Romen comes to realize he has repressed his instinctual desire to help the girl and ends up reaching out to her.

And the infanticide at the center of Beloved is a morally complex act of desperation. During the interview, Morrison spoke of her deliberate withholding of judgment of Sethe. "Suppose I knew definitely that my boys—my children—were going to be kidnapped, taken off, molested: What would I do? And I couldn't answer." (Morrison is the mother of two sons, Harold and Slade; Slade died in 2010 at age 45.)

Resisting cynicism
Morrison said she simply could not create her works if she wrote out of a place of cynicism or despair. This is not to say that her faith never wavers.

Sometimes the realm of politics and the cruelty of world events wear her down.

Once, 10 years ago, she was feeling especially "sad and disturbed," she said. "Whatever it was, it was paralyzing. Peter Sellars [the theater and opera director, who has collaborated with Morrison] called up as he often does on Christmas Day or during the holidays.… He said, 'How are you?,' and I said that I didn't feel very good.

"I said, 'You know, Peter, I can't write,' and I told him why I thought I couldn't, and he started shouting, 'No, no, no, no!' He said this is precisely the time when artists go to work, not when everything is fine but when things were difficult. Dire. This is when we're needed."

After that pep talk, she had a realization: "I thought to myself, 'God, think of all the writers who wrote in prisons.' In gulags, you know. I mean, it is just amazing. I felt a little ashamed but very happy that he said that. I never had a problem since."

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 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!