Shout-out for Reviews!
I’m issuing an all-call to those readers who have ordered Trout Kill through Amazon, either the paperback or Kindle versions: I NEED REVIEWS! When I visited the Amazon site this afternoon I noticed the little blue words saying “Be the first to review this item.” Here’s your chance to be a literary critic. Come on, you can do this. Just go to this link and follow the simple prompts: 1) enter a pen name, either your real name or one you make up for anonymity; 2) rate Trout Kill by giving it 1-5 stars; 3) enter a title for your review; and 4) share your opinion, either by video or with words (at least 20). That’s all there is to it. It takes about one minute. Thanks, and Happy New Year to all!
As I write I’m constantly taking Google excursions, researching some obscurity to get a fact right or authentically described. For example, I’m currently writing a scene in which Eddy and his sister Em are looking at an oil painting of Rose’s, their long-deceased, artistic mother. Marge, a friend of Em’s who knows something of art history, has described the style of the painting as abstract expressionism. This fictional factoid send me scurrying to Wikipedia. There, I find many references to abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. There are examples of their works, and I’m attracted to a de Kooning painting, Woman V, 1952-53. I would describe Woman V as the very fractured, colorfully smudged body of a woman–but that’s my description of abstraction, not Eddy’s. So I have to translate my description into how I think Eddy would see the painting. In the scene I’m writing, I’m trying to convey the idea that the painting Em is showing Eddy is similar to the de Kooning painting in style and subject matter. Eddy thinks to himself, “It looks like a chain-sawed woman’s face sutured with a rainbow.” So, I’ve just spent about an hour on a sentence, and chances are I’ll eventually either change it or throw it out. Such is research. I love it; I hate it.
I carry this pocket-sized notebook around and am always jotting down impressions, images, etc. that might or might not eventually find their way into my novels. When I take a walk in the local woods with my dog Tucker, in the midst of the trees I often pull out the notebook and scrawl a thought down. Here’s a random one from weeks past: “I don’t have a soul, just thoughts and feelings that occupy me. A walk in these woods dissolves that occupation, turns it from stone into flowing water.” Where the hell did that come from? How do the woods, ironically it seems, evoke such soulful thoughts from a soul-less guy? The word “occupation” is vaguely threatening, especially when juxtaposed with “flowing water.” And what of that “stone”? In the Trout Trilogy the woods are alluded to several times; they seem to be one of Eddy’s frames of reference. He’s a former logger who killed trees for a living. He’s got a “nailing tree” in his backyard that he’s slowing killing. Yet he seeks isolation in the woods as if they might heal some vital aspect of his being. Are these contradictions? What do these things suggest about Eddy?
A fractured man and his fractured sister–that’s the central storyline in TK. Eddy and Em share a bad history. How bad? You’ll have to read the book to find out. That history has left them psychologically “fractured”–defensive, paranoid, sensitive, yearning and extremely dependent upon one another. Neurotic and maybe borderline psychotic. A prof once told me the difference: The neurotic person builds a dream castle in the sky, and the psychotic person lives in one. I always appreciated that explanation. Maybe Eddy and Em just rent one from time to time.
So, the question I posed in my last post was this: Does Trout Kill transport you? By this I meant does it take you to a place that’s transcendent and helps you temporarily “forget” the here and the now, the “real” world that surrounds you. One book that transported me was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. (You can find a Wikipedia link to Unbroken on my Book Recommendations page; it’s the second listing.) I usually identify with strong male characters who overcome big odds. Unbroken is the biography of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic track star who survives a plane crash in the Pacific theater, spends 47 days drifting on a raft and then more than two and a half years as a prisoner of war in several brutal Japanese internment camps. The word hero is used so much anymore it’s almost become meaningless. Louis Z., though, sure fits the bill: fearless, intelligent, strong, resourceful, principled and morally upright. He kills sharks with a pair of pliers. The main interest I have in the characters I create, though, is their many imperfections. Eddy Trout, the protagonist in Trout Kill, is certainly no Louis Z., but can he be considered “heroic” in the modern, existential sense of the word? The existential hero is sometimes described as the character who stands alone against the crowd; he has a will to exist; he generates a self-interpretation of himself and the world from his own experiential history. His experience constitutes “authentic” experience. He accepts his own mortality and finds meaning in the meaninglessness of finite experience. He is usually an atheist who rejects the metaphysical “crutch” offered by religions. He is fully conscious and this awareness may fill him with fear and trembling, but he acts boldly in the face of it. Your question for the day: Is Eddy an existential hero? if not, what is he?
Hold your index finger a foot in front of your nose, and look well beyond it at what ever is there, maybe a wall or the horizon. Some of you will see only one finger there, while others will “see” two “ghostly” fingers. Our rational minds tell us there is one actual finger, but for many of us–me included–our private sensory experience reports “seeing” not one but two. Being rational, even those of us who see two would never suspend disbelief and accept the ghost finger as real. The trick of good storytelling, however, is to do just that–suspend the reader’s disbelief and get him to accept that fictitious finger as reality. The Big Question for me as a writer is this: How well–or not well–do I pull off this trick of suspending my reader’s disbelief? I have no clue if I do or don’t. Sure, I’ve read my stories aloud to friends and fellow writers, and their feedback has always been generally positive. But it’s also been analytic. I’ve never gotten feedback from someone who’s tried to read one of my stories as escapist entertainment, which is why many of us read fiction. You know, the book you hope transports you to another time and place, catches you up in events far removed from those of your own mundane existence. That’s what I want to know about Trout Kill. Does it transport you?
So, to finally wrap up (for now) this road thing (before I beat the cliche to death) …. It’s been a long and winding, um, road. (Sorry!) I began writing fiction in the early ’80’s, finished a novel that’s still gathering dust on a shelf, wrote short stories and got a few stories published, won a few contests and received my fair share of rejections from editors and agents. And then I went off-road (Sorry again!) and didn’t write another fictional word (unless you count some of the college recommendations I penned at CHS) for nearly twenty years, till I took that Dangerous Writing class in ’05. I guess the path (switching cliches!) I followed was somewhat non-conventional but, on the other hand, when it comes to writers and writing what’s normal? Where I am right now feels wonderful. I’ve self-pubbed my first novel and got my sights set (another cliche!) on at least three more, including that one gathering dust. As long as the story lines and characters keep popping into my head, why not bring them to life and, while I’m at it, enjoy the view from the road (ugh!).
(Next up, Not the Road!)
So, despite the treachery of that NY agent who had boosted my hopes skyward and then shot them down, I did, nevertheless, heed some of his advice: I read a book he recommended for a model of how he envisioned Trout Kill might go. That book was Spartina, by John Casey. I loved the story. In Spartina, the protagonist builds a fishing boat to help him battle the “ghosts” from his past, and then he sails the boat into an Atlantic storm and finds redemption. In the Trout Trilogy, the protagonist builds a new heart and “sails” it into the storms that arise from his troubled past. Maybe he’ll be redeemed, and maybe not–I haven’t got to the end yet, so I don’t know what his fate will be. But you can see the parallels between the two stories. After reading Spartina, I rewrote Trout Kill, streamlining the plot … and never heard back from that bastard agent. That’s what put me on the road to self-publication, which I’d always frowned upon before as mere “vanity press.” But my mind was made up. I asked a few friends to help edit TK, design the cover and take the author photo. I was ready to find a publisher. I started locally, with Inkwater Press in Portland, Oregon. I expanded my search and eventually settled on Outskirts Press in Parker, Colorado. They seemed to offer a few more bells and whistles, like giving authors 10 free copies instead of only 5.
(Part IX later)
During the next few years, roughly ’07-’10, Trout Kill slowly evolved toward its final shape. I joined a Dangerous Writer’s group taught by Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred and they gave me valuable feedback. I completed that draft of the book, about number four, or so. Later, thinking I’d completed Trout Kill at last, I started writing the second novel of the Trout Trilogy, Trout Run. I formed my own writer’s group and wrote about a hundred pages of it. Then, in the summer of 2010 I pitched Trout Kill to an agent at the Willamette Writer’s Conference. He said he’d like to see the entire book. I sent it to him; he read it and suggested major changes. Over the next few months I revised the book and then sent it back to him. I never heard from him again. To say the least, it pissed me off. It wasn’t the first time I’d been burned by a publisher, agent or an editor. I thought, “To hell with him.” That painful experience put me on the road to self-publication.
(Part VIII later)