I was as at the prison and we were writing about lying— about liars and lies told —when an instructor came by the classroom and said that the education building was being shut down, and the inmates needed to return to the units. So I gave everyone a homework assignment and the students left and I began packing up, when one of the students stuck her head back in the classroom and said, “It’s raining! You’ve got to see this!”
We’ve been in a hard, hard drought this year, and then, as of today, 23 straight days of over 100 degrees. It’s been rough.
I went out into the hallway and the instructor said, “Well, it’s trying to rain. Been a long time!”
One of the rules of the institution is that in times of thunder and lightning, inmates are restricted to the units, and so my students went all excited back to the barracks. I closed up my briefcase and went outside—and was half-blinded by dust. We’ve been so dry there’s not much but dirt and dust in this area, and the storm winds were picking up the dirt and blowing it around. I signed out at the security station and went to my car. A few drops of mud came from the sky. There were sudden blasts of cool air—cool!—from downdrafts, followed by the buffets of hot air. I could smell rain.
I drove back through the neighborhood—the sky was sort of open to the north, and stormy in the east and south. In this photo, looking north, you can see a field of dead grass. Texas right now is a sad, khaki-colored state….
Then it really started to rain! Amazing. I made a video of my drive home….
(Remember, I was a professional driver for six years—don’t try this at home!)
I stopped by the grocery store to get some supplies, and people were lined up under the awning gazing heavenward with looks of wonder on their faces.
Readers in damp climates, don’t take for granted the miracle of water from the sky.
And—why not?—some rock and roll….
Just hope I don't have to wait a long time to play this again.....
On the last day of the 2010 AWP Bookfair, the powers allow non-AWP civilians to enter the arena to buy books and hobnob with writers, and I was sitting at the Slough Press table and a lady and a boy of maybe 10 or 11 came by and looked over my books. He was really taken with That Demon Life—which put me in an uncomfortable position.
I want everyone to read my books—everyone, including kids. But—but—when I tell people That Demon Life is a comic novel about lust and laziness, with lots of drinking and screwing and miscellaneous bad behavior—well, I’m serious. It really is. And is that appropriate for a kid?
My parents let me read pretty much anything. I moved pretty much from Dr. Seuss to adult novels. An example: I loved James Bond, so for Christmas in the 4th grade I got a boxed set of the complete works of Ian Fleming! That was so cool….
But I’m not a parent. (Thankfully!) I had never had to concern myself with thoughts of familial censorship or appropriateness until that day in Denver.
In the end I steered the kid over to Long Time Ago Good, and his mom bought it for him. I guess that’s good, right?
I’ve been thinking about these things since I read Steve Himmer’s essay, Making Room for Readers. Himmer was in a somewhat different situation than I was in, but at least my kid had a good mother who wanted him to read almost anything. It was me and not the controlling adult who thought my book might be inappropriate….
Happy endings are fine—who doesn’t want everything to turn out fine, both for us and for the people with whom we have an emotional investment? But happy endings have to be earned in fiction—characters have to go through a process of narrative, really need to get roughed up, gain a knowledge of the world through hardship, before they can be rewarded with a happy ending. For a reader, anything else is unsatisfying.
…For several months—since the beginning of the tax season, back in January—Garza had felt that he was drifting. He had come to hate working in Data Conversion, and he wanted out. He was only a temporary manager, and at the end of the season in June he would go back to his permanent job as the Section clerk-typist. Clerk-typist! What a job title! Four years of college at the big university, a degree in history, all for a lousy job as an IRS clerk-typist. Even some of the other managers, his friends, would look at him at times and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” Garza didn't know. His friends from college were out of law school now, or out of grad school, or out working for corporations and making good money, and Garza was stuck doing quality review on tax returns and writing up his employees for returning late from breaks. And he had turned thirty. That made a difference, too.
In “Five Things,” Garza begins a difficult process of trying to understand what he wants in life. Is the ending happy? I think so. He's earned something close to happiness....
"Five Things" is the closing story in Long Time Ago Good. Next week I'll do a recap of the soundtracks, plus a bonus or two....
Here's a nice little review of Long Time Ago Good appearing in The Hays Free Press....
I know one should not judge a book by its cover, but truthfully, many people do, and I am no different. On a recent trip to the Buda Library, I was browsing through their newly acquired books and a title grabbed my attention, “Long Time Ago Good: Sunset Dreams from Austin and Beyond” by Lowell Mick White. The picture on the front cover depicts a blurry, angry dog barking at an armadillo. I opened the book and discovered it was a collection of short stories. Based on what I saw on the cover, I had a feeling these stories might have some edge to them. I was right.Read the full review: "Check it Out, Neighbor."
Back in 2007 I received a rejection on my novel, That Demon Life. It was a bad rejection—the agent basically liked my book, and we corresponded for a couple of weeks, but then she finally said No. She turned the novel down because she felt there wasn’t enough movement in the protagonist of the book. She also really hated the epilogue.
I was more than bummed-out. This was a blow. I wondered if I should massively revise the book. And so I took a day or so and reread the manuscript and wrote a memo to myself about character changes in the book—or lack of character changes in the book. I was trying to get my feelings sorted out....
I forgot all about the memo until I found it yesterday on my hard drive….
Thoughts on Character Transformation in That Demon Life
1. There are structural impediments to large-scale change or character transformation in the novel. TDLtakes place over the course of a week (with an epilogue two weeks after that). The tight time frame limits how far any single person can be transformed, unless it’s Saul on the way to Damascus or something.
2. Many novels have characters who don’t change. Four examples that have influenced me:
A. War & Peace. Pierre’s happy at the end, and wiser, but he’s still the same kindly, bumbling, idealistic, over-intellectualized man he was 15 years earlier. Andrei is dead--so there's a change! Nicolas is an adult version of the young man he was, Marie has moved from having an overbearing father to having an overbearing husband, Sonya is likened to an energetic kitten in the opening and a content old housecat in the epilogue (okay, change, though still cat-like), and though Natasha has moved from a young girl concerned with singing and dancing and flirting around to a grown woman concerned with being a mother, does that really count as a transformation or is it a recognition of the aging process? When Denisov looks at Natasha, he still sees the 14 year-old, which says more about him than Natasha….
B. The Sun Also Rises. The whole fucking point of this book is that Brett & Jake will never ever change! Never ever!
C. A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius’s valve opens up and he hits the road—but he is going to be the same nut in New York that he was in New Orleans. (On the other hand: Ig’s mom does change, as do Jones and Levy….Ignatius could then be a catalyst for change?)
D. The Gay Place (“The Flea Circus”). Over the course of a busy week, Roy actually does some legislative work, helps out the governor, and kind of makes a commitment to Ouida, but he’s still the same lazy, sardonic drunk he was before….(Hmm, kinda TDL-ish?) Is the sorta-commitment a change? Don’t think so, not really….
3. EM Forster warns against privileging Round Characters over Flat Characters (I think; it’s been a long time since I’ve read Forster). This is only pertinent if you concede that a Round Character must have the“potential to change.” Though at any rate you need flat & round both….
4. People don’t change, anyway. I deeply believe this. Behaviors may manifest themselves in different ways over time, but the Person’s basic character remains the same. In striving for verisimilitude, the novel needs to remain true to human character (or at least true to my perception of it).
5. Desire for character change a reflection of the aspirations & wish-fullfillments of the reader? Should I care and if so how much?
In the end, I didn’t do any revisions. I even kept the epilogue. I liked That Demon Life—it was the book I wanted to write. I still like it….