"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Ken Bruen's The Guards

Winter Break is here!  There's not much winter in Nebraska, but I'm soon heading North and there's snow up there.  I can't wait to make snow kitties with my niece (her request) and throw snowballs at my parents' puppy, who is obsessed with snow.  But for now, in the days after submitting final grades and putting together my provisional syllabi for spring, I'm working on the other things that need to get started before I head Up North.  So, I have my experimental chocolate-mint shortbread (didn't turn out exactly right, but it tastes good) on the counter, cooling, and noir-dark Assam in my favorite teapot.  It's Sunday, the Christmas lights are cozy, and I have my fireplace app crackling on my iPad, blues on the iTunes.  A little later in the day, I'll flip on my battery-powered candles and bask in their ambience.  No actual fire in my apartment these days.  Too dangerous.  It is, as my mother said when she saw that my sisters had given me these electric candles for my birthday:  "Well, your apartment is sort of flammable."  Indeed.

But it's a nice day to curl up on the couch with a book, even though that book is one I'm teaching next semester.  Or it's one that I need to read for the two articles I'm writing next semester.  (In addition to revising and defending my dissertation.)

Today, I finished Ken Bruen's first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards.  (Check out the interview I did with him a while back.)  And I'm surrounded by the gritty joy of being back in Galway, even if it's in the company of Jack Taylor--who, I have mentioned, is the most thoroughly unlikeable character I keep spending time with.  I'd read later books in this series, but never the first one.  And since I'm working on this article about the craft of place in Irish crime fiction, looking here at Bruen's first was a good place to start, and this is the joy of being an English teacher, one who gets wrapped up in all incarnations of the page, but in this instance, I'm wrapped up in what I'm reading both as a literature scholar and a creative writer.  It's a heady mixture.

The article itself is starting to take shape in my head, but it's a testament to Bruen (who I unashamedly love) that I keep getting distracted from the real reason I'm reading this book, getting lost in the darkness and the craft of the sentences.  If you've never read Bruen, you must.  It'll take a little getting used to his style--and Jack Taylor himself--but it's worth it.  The darkness of this book comes from the sparseness of concrete details, the lack of sensory images, but I realized on this read that Bruen draws Galway not through the kind of concrete details that writers have come to expect from prose, but through people.  He mentions the Romanian woman blowing on her pipe outside Easons, and I'm pretty sure I've seen her.  It's through these people that he draws the character of Shop Street.  It's through the winos that he draws Eyre Square.  Bruen doesn't need to tell us that the hospital where the wino Padraig ends up is a bleak, horrible place--he doesn't need to tell us the color of the walls.  He just needs to show the orderly giving afternoon tea and biscuits to everyone in the ward except for Padraig.

And then, when you get lulled into the hard quality of what Desi Kenny called "machine gun prose," most of which is contain in Hemingway-spare dialogue, then Bruen hits you with moments like this: "He was one of those skull smokers.  Sucked the nicotine in so hard it made his cheekbones bulge.  He blew out the smoke with a deep sigh.  Whether contentment or agony, it was a close call" (165).  Then you just have to sit back and breathe for a while, because he's just knocked the air from you.  Sentences are amazing, powerful, beautiful things that should never, ever be underestimated.  And this is why.  This is why we read.  This is why we write.

Thinking about the movement between natural and built environments, where the sunshine is something to be avoided and feared, where the entire nature of the narrative is set up in the first lines of the second chapter:  “There are no private eyes in Ireland.  The Irish wouldn’t wear it.  The concept brushes perilously close to the hated ‘informer.’ You can get away with most anything except ‘telling’ (5).  The places so important to the development of characters and development of plots are essential to the Irish peculiarities of telling and not-telling.  Storytelling and secret-keeping.  What we tell and what we don't tell.  And as I'm thinking more specifically about this novel right now, the three main places this story hangs on--various pubs, Rahoon Cemetery, and Nimmo's Pier--each represent a facet of telling or not telling.

Love it.

I'm going to reread other Bruen novels in the course of my work on this article, but I'm feeling good about this start.  And it reminds me why I like to read crime fiction, especially in the wake of Newtown, when I didn't think I could handle any mention of violence--crime fiction gives readers closure, if not a happy ending, then a mending of the rips and tears and gashes that the crime caused.  Whether there's justice or revenge at the end of a novel, that pinhead is ready for the angel's disco.  But the good guys generally win--or win something--at the end.  And sometimes that's what we need.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

State of Mind: Newtown, CT and the Power of Fiction

There's a redhot ball of grief in the center of my chest right now, grown prickles overnight, an absolute inability to voice the grief I am feeling over every new detail coming out of Newtown, Connecticut and all those families facing life without all those incredible people, adults they knew and loved, children who will never be who they could be.  My Facebook feed yesterday was full of parents wanting to pull their children out of whatever school they may be in, hug them, and never let them go.  My niece is only two, not old enough for school, home today with her mom, but the same urge still applies.  This morning, I looked at the headlines and absolutely could not force myself to click on the articles.

There are many other discussions filling my Twitter and my Facebook right now, most wanting real, solid, productive conversations about gun control, the desire to talk about the culture that fuels these killers, ignores their mental health because there are no programs to help them, and more.  But this afternoon, all I can think about is how I spent the last four months talking with my literature students about a genre of literature that deals with this very thing.  How crime literature is the literature of social order, how it responds to our greatest fears as a society, and how we have raised violence to the level of entertainment, rather than the unacceptable action it actually is.

We fear violence against children.  It is one of our greatest societal fears.  Columbine was a defining moment of my world in 1999, Virginia Tech as well.  Schools are supposed to be safe places.  Children are supposed to be safe.  My students and I saw it in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, in William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake.  Yesterday morning, I saw an article about the stolen babies in Spain and thought that sounded like the basis for Ken Bruen or Benjamin Black's new novel, this link between real life and fiction and the ways that life influences fiction, makes us talk about things that we wouldn't necessarily talk about any other way.  That article seems so distant now.  But it still fits into this larger societal fear of violence against children, the forcible separation of parents from children.  I don't know what to feel, how to feel about the role I've played as an educator in the glorification of this kind of violence.  I teach this literature, after all.  Yesterday, I was working on fleshing out my Irish Noir class that I hope to teach someday (because I have ideas and a brand new binder) and once news of Newtown trickled in, I had to put it away.  I had to go do something, read something, watch something that reminded me of the best parts of being human.

But I am a writer, not only a teacher, and the semester is over.  And this morning, I'm trying to deal with this grief that does not belong to me in the same way I tried to deal with 9/11, all those years ago, in my first apartment in Spokane, days before I began my MFA experience.  My memories of 9/11 are largely sightless, full of September heat on my skin, the voice of Tom Brokaw over the radio in my ear.  I had just moved into my apartment two days before and I had not had cable installed yet, so the images in my head of 9/11 were a product of my imagination and what other people were telling me, via radio, what was going on.  At the time, I was working on my novel, the story of four sisters set during the Irish Great Famine, and in those first days after 9/11, I pounded out so many pages in Brighid's chapter, pouring all my grief and fear and horror into what this sensitive healer was feeling about watching her family and community rot during those days of Black '47.  Today, this morning, I wish I could work on my dissertation, bask in the joy and delight of Galway and the goodness of that city, but for all the healing powers of nonfiction, today I need the healing powers of fiction.  Fiction is how we deal, how we heal, how we operate in a world that we can understand.  It's how we can imagine the grief of those parents, what those children would have heard in those hallways, the color of those hallways, and ask ourselves where do we go from here?  What do we do? And fiction allows us to actually answer those questions, form the path forward ourselves, one brick at a time, one sentence at a time.  By the time we're finished, we have something that might allow us to create that path in this world under our feet.  Fiction is the vehicle that allows us--those of us to whom this story does not belong--to find healing, through imagination, to find the restoration of the social order that the crime has ripped apart.  Whose stories aren't being told?  Whose stories of Columbine do we not tell anymore?  Whose stories of Virginia Tech?  Who has stories we aren't listening to?  And I was reminded that dear friends of our family are burying her mother today, how the most healing part of losing my grandfather six years ago was all the stories in the air.

I went looking for quotes, because my friend Matt Bell posted a quote this morning from the late poet Jack Gilbert:  "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil."  At what point can and should we not feel guilty about delight?  About joy?  Like the aftermath of 9/11, when we wondered when it would be appropriate to laugh again?  And the inimitable Joan Didion—“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”—and this was the moment I needed.  We tell ourselves stories in order to live.  Not just survive, not just endure, but to live.  We need stories to move us from one place to another, even if that place is the internal movement of grief.  We need to tell stories to make order out of the disorder, find light in the darkness.  Sometimes those stories are stories that actually happened, the nonfiction that my writerly self so often gravitates towards, trying to make meaning out of what has happened.  But there are times when nonfiction is not the right vehicle, not the right answer to the questions in my head, that I need to create characters and storylines that give voice to whatever it is that I am feeling, because what is inside me needs to find an outlet in some way. 

Grace Paley writes, “You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell. Some guy, he’s angry, he wants to take a poke at someone—or he kicks a can, or sets fire to the house, or hits his wife, or the wife smacks the kid. Then again, it’s not always violent. Some people go out and run for three hours. Some people go shopping. The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?”  

There is a lot of pressure inside me this morning, with no place for it to go, and when I write fiction, I write it best under pressure, when I can give this pressure to someone else, a fictional someone else who can do something productive with those emotions in a way that I cannot. The pressure inside me right now, the fear and the anger and the guilt and the injustice and the slivers of hope and joy and delight and laughter, they are important and I need to put them to the page to work through the rips in social order, the incredible societal fears that Newtown now—most recently—represents.  Fiction can do this in a way that no other medium can, in a way that real life cannot.  Nonfiction has its place and in many instances is exactly the right way to work through things that don't make sense.  But fiction has its place too.  Fiction is incredibly powerful, incredibly real, incredibly important, in both the reading and the writing.  We should never take it for granted, because we tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On the Incredible Importance of Introductory Classes

It's the dark of the morning, the first real cold day we've had in Lincoln thus far, and I seem to have forgotten what seven degrees actually feels like on my skin.  And, for once, my office in Andrews Hall is toasty warm.  My Stanley thermos is full of piping-hot, sunshine-in-tea, the delightfulness of Earl Grey Supreme on the Monday of finals week, when I'm sitting in my office, waiting for my students to come by to pick up their final papers.  It seems an appropriate time to put thoughts to page, thoughts that have been twirling around my brain for the last month, slightly solidified as I've read my students' finals (in both the comp and lit classes) and their reflections.  

In what might be my best moment of the semester, one of my composition students is changing his major to English, because he learned over the course of our class the power of the written word.  Yes.  This is why I do what I do, the reason I love teaching composition even though I identify myself as a creative writer.  In my literature class, the reflections of my students are equally enlightening--and the number of them who have decided to take more English classes (now that their ACE requirements have been fulfilled) or seriously consider English majors or minors just makes my little teacher heart go pitty pat.  This semester has been incredibly stressful for a number of different reasons, but here's the part of the semester when I'm specifically reminded why I do what I do.  I love reading their reflections.

A sampling of their reflection comments:

“I’ve learned a lot about literature and reading this semester, probably the most I’ve learned since actually learning to read.”

“Much of the information people know is not from first-hand experience.  Literature has the power to educate people on cultures and areas of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise know about.”

“Literature can shape our beliefs and mental capacity, making us smarter and more valuable human beings.”

“I am excited to have learned that there is still much to learn about the area of reading and literature, and I hope to continue exploring the area by reading more in my free time.  In general, taking this course sparked my interest in reading more.  This was definitely in part due to the passion for reading displayed by the instructor.  By reading and reflecting so many times on different texts, it was a reminder that great authors or people of any profession, are really great beause they love what they do.  It is not only by extreme effort and focus that people become wonderful at what they do, but by a love for what they are doing.”

“I had never taken a class that went through as much detail as we did this semester.  I had no idea, and never even thought that there was such a thing as social class, natural or built environment, or even gendering.”

Nearly all of the students in my literature class told me in the first week that they don't really like to read, that they were only in my class because it fulfilled one of their core requirements.  It didn't surprise me.  I'm used to it.  For my entire teaching career, I've taught the required core curriculum classes, from my composition work at Bowling Green and the classes that I've been able to teach here at UNL.  The general consensus seems to be--from both the teaching and the student perspectives--that those required classes are a waste of time.  Nobody wants to teach those classes, so they’re farmed off on adjuncts or non-tenure track faculty (which is what the General Studies Writing program was comprised of and who are currently fighting for their job security) or graduate students, at larger institutions.  Of course, this demeans both the classes, the students, and the faculty, especially since I actually like teaching these intro classes.  How many hundreds, thousands of students do we see through these introductory classes--that for these students, these might be the only humanities courses they ever take?

“I had never really cared about literature before I took this class to be quite honest.  I wasn’t something that I deemed as important to my life; however, after taking this class, I have grown a solid appreciation for what literature stands for and how it molds your mind into something greater.”

In a recent article in theChronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo advocates for “flipping the curriculum,” that “Introductory courses should be just as good as the Capstone experience.”  He writes, “A few weeks ago, at a conference on the future of higher education held at George Mason University, the topic of large introductory courses came up several times during a panel discussion on how to engage students and strengthen learning. As one audience member described a stimulating capstone experience for seniors, one of the panelists, Mills Kelly, asked why the university makes them wait four years to get it.”  And this was one of those moments that resonated with something I’d heard six weeks earlier, at the American Conference of Irish Studies, where history professor Tim Mahoney from Marquette University argued that the way we structure our curriculum is backwards.  Instead of starting broad in survey courses in the first years and narrow to specific courses in upper-level classes, why don’t we teach those narrow courses (which are often on topics that appeal to students) in the first years?  Especially in these days of declining enrollments in majors like English (and the push in places like Florida to make English majors pay more for their degree than a STEM degree), why are we not putting our time and energy into those introductory classes, the first line of defense (so to speak) where we have the most focused face-time with students?  Selingo’s plan is—at least in theory—brilliantly easy:  “In the spirit of “flipping the classroom,” I call his suggestion “flipping the curriculum.” It would call for small classes in the freshman and senior years and larger classes for sophomores and particularly for juniors. The profit that the university makes right now on introductory classes would remain, but just shift to the junior year.”  Obviously I’m not so na├»ve to think that completely restructuring a curriculum would be easy, but this idea is so incredibly awesome.

“I realize throughout the semester, that reading a book and making a connection with it, doesn’t always mean you have to be relating to the story.  Relating is not always possible, so when it’s not that doesn’t mean you have to put the book down, it means you should keep reading until a connection is made.”

I came from an undergraduate experience where the entire English department, from full professors down to the adjuncts, all taught composition.  They considered introductory classes so important that everybody in the entire department was required to teach them.  I’m sure that some of them grumbled about it, but the philosophy was one that shaped my ideas of what we consider important in undergraduate education.  And as I started my teaching career in various different environments (Eastern Washington University is much different than Bowling Green is different than UNL), always teaching in the required courses, part of my commitment to my students involved a commitment to the classes I was teaching, because I believe so fervently in the power of the written word.  My students are, most often, not majors.  What does it do to a teacher to consistently teach in an environment where they students don’t want to be there?  In a word, it’s tough.  But it’s my job—and because I believe the written word is essential to life—and it’s my job to teach them that they can write, that they can read, that there is more in heaven and earth, and heaven and earth are incredibly interesting places.  I am never surprised when my students tell me they hate writing.  Or they hate reading.  It hurts to hear that, that somewhere along the line they decided that reading was something to be avoided. 

This semester, teaching these two brand-new classes, I was reminded again of why it’s important to meet students where they are, that there are so many incredible moments to be had when those light bulbs go off in their heads, when the meteorology major sees the role that weather plays in the plot of a novel, when a finance major says he’d rather be reading books than taking calculus, when students realize that they’ve written something amazing that they never thought they could.  It’s been obvious to me this semester, teaching this crime literature course, that one book really does lead to another.  I started my interest here just a year ago, when I taught William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake in my Intro to Fiction class, studying how a novel is put together, and my students told me they didn’t like mysteries until they read that book.  It was accidental that the novel I chose for the next incarnation of that fiction writing class (the Irish version) was another mystery, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.  In that same semester, I took a Women’s Rhetoric class, in which a friend did her project on sex trafficking as represented in popular fiction—and that was a turning point for me.  What happens when we analyze the texts we read for entertainment?  How does that type of literature raise questions in the way that Capital-L Literature does not or cannot?  And thus this Crime Literature class was born. What happens when we teach very narrowly specific classes in the first year courses?  Do we encourage more majors to join us or do they join us after taking general survey courses?  (I don't know, I haven't done the research on the effect of those survey courses.)

In the same way, I crafted this particular English 151 (Rhetoric as Argument) class around the idea of the Rhetoric of Science, hoping to meet my STEM students where they were, to teach them how to look at the rhetoric of the texts they saw around them every day.  (I think that about half of my 151 class had some sort of science or social science majors.)  Writing isn’t just confined to English departments, ideas and stories are not confined to Andrews Hall.  I wanted to give them not just academic-type nonfiction to read (like we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but I wanted to give them science fiction—not otherwordly science fiction, but Andrea Barrett’s science fiction.  Maybe the next time I teach a literature class, maybe I’ll theme it on Science Fiction (and find a better way to title it so that it’s not confused with aliens).  Why don’t we have more communication between departments, to cross-list classes that might be of interest to students in other majors?  What about asking the biology department, the hospitality management department what they might like to see in an English class for their majors?  Reading Andrea Barrett in a science lit class, reading M.F.K. Fisher or even checking out these two awesome works (one on hotels in the arts, the other a critical book on hotelsin German and Austrian literature).  There are so many possibilities here that it makes me tingle a little, though that might be the Earl Grey. 

We get one shot to reach these students in these introductory classes.  This is not a problem or a challenge; it is the greatest kind of opportunity.  Maybe two shots, given how many required English classes a curriculum requires.  Flipping the curriculum--and empowering both the faculty who teach those introductory classes and the students who take them--might be a way to solve some of the apathy problems we see from both faculty and students, especially as budgets are getting slashed and academia becomes a much harder place to be.  Creating--and flipping-- our curriculum so that our teachers are as incredibly excited about the intro classes they're teaching as they are about upper-level classes seems to be a logical step.  Teaching specific courses at the upper-level is fun and important, but there's also great fun to be had when students are just starting to think about these ideas.  We need to trust our intro students to have the same sort of instincts that our majors have, to give them an entry to writing and literature that meets them where they are, empowers them to recognize their life on the page, recognize how other lives function on the page.  There is great benefit in expecting the best of our students, especially in the intro levels.  It really does boil down to remembering that if we're bored, there's no way we're going to be able to inspire our students to make the kind of connection we know they can make, take the kind of risks we know will lead to great things.  And this is the best kind of opportunity for all of us.

“Literature allows you to expand your boundaries and think in ways that you typically would not.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Special Guest Star: Joy Castro!

It's been a while since I've posted--and I realize I've posted nothing as we've been reading Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and talked about true crime.  I will remedy that.  Soon.  But there's fun news to talk about:  Joy Castro, one of our delightful creative writing professors at UNL, came to my English 180 class on Friday to talk about her debut noir thriller, Hell or High Water, which came out this summer.  When it came out, I was getting ready to head to Montreal for IASIL and couldn't get it in print before I left, so I got it for my iPad and read it on my trip.  So great.  

I'd paired the first three chapters of her novel with Lee Horsley's "Regendering the Genre" chapter from Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, to take what we'd been talking about with Vowell and our concepts of crime literature as they've been evolving over the course of the semester.  My students are turning in their final essay on Friday, so I'm excited to see what they write about.  I'd asked my students, as they were in their groups, to consider how Horsley sees the ways that gender works in contemporary crime fiction, but what's really interesting is how she draws that lineage back even to the Golden Age of crime fiction, where women like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reigned supreme.  As Horsley breaks down the binaries associated with gender on the page, I asked my students to consider how regendering affects the four main areas of the text:  the author, protagonist, victim, and perpetrator.  Horsley writes, "The recovery of female subjectivity is more complex than [changing the male protagonist to female]:  there are other key roles that female characters occupy.  The revisionings of the female transgressor--and indeed victim--are as significant as the better known series which recast the investigative role."  It was with this in mind that I wanted us to talk with Joy about her novel, which reinvisions the role of women in all these areas.  (My students were uncharacteristically quiet, but as we talked on Monday after they'd had time to process, they had quite a bit to say.)

We started with these questions:

  • What are the large scale issues that this book addresses (or will address)?  What about large-scale questions this novel presents?  How are they presented in a way that provokes conversation and debate different from other modes of fiction?
    • Issues of social order/disorder?
    • What are the societal fears that drive this novel?
  • Creation of suspense?  Where do you see elements we’ve discussed before?  
    • Joy Castro (from an interview with Amelia Montes):  “For readers, true suspense comes from caring about characters.  When you really care about a character—when that character feels real on the page—then his or her fate matters to you.”
  • Where do you see the intersection of this novel with Lee Horsley’s ideas about gender and regendering?  (Specifically, your group’s assignment: victims/perpetrators/protagonists/authors.)
  • Issues of place:  place as active character, place/displacement/out-of-place, movement and stasis, natural and built environments?

This is a book I wish I could have taught in its entirety and next time I get to teach a crime lit class, it's definitely going to be on the list.  Issues of place/displacement/out-of-place were some of the things that stood out to me as I reread these first three chapters, trying to look at them as if I'd never seen them before.  The drawing of both the built and natural environments contributes to this, the buildings of various parts of New Orleans, a natural environment that is itself a built environment that affects every single cell of those who live there.  I want to talk gendering of Nola, Joy's protagonist, and I want to talk about things that I can't reveal here for spoiling the plot.  I want to talk more about the creation of suspense that we talked about with Agatha Christie, the use of breaking the reader's trust, reader's assumptions, control of the clock, and more.  What's more suspenseful than issues of violence against women and children (that social fear we've been talking about all semester), combined with the rapists that Nola is interviewing--many in positions of power and authority, men who should be absolutely trustworthy, clergy and assistant principals and more.  I want to talk about the craft of fiction, the craft of crime fiction, and I want to talk details--especially the layering of sensory details.  It's not enough just to have a scent-drenched paragraph; what makes Joy's work great is that those senses are layered.  Smell with color, tactile details with taste.  That's the mark of a truly great writer. Here's a link to Joy's blog post on "The Fragrance of Fiction."

One of my students missed Friday (traveling to play in the marching band for UNL's Big Ten Championship...or whatever it was that turned out to be on Saturday) and unfortunately, she'd also missed Kent Krueger's Skype for marching band as well.  Because I didn't want her to miss out completely on the conversations with writers we'd had this semester, Joy kindly consented to answer my student's questions via email.  

As we have been studying, place is extremely important in crime fiction.  With this in mind, why the setting of post-Katrina New Orleans?  What elements of this setting made your story unique? What questions does this setting raise (in relation to social disorder/societal fears)?

Hell or High Water is a story about aftermath:  the aftermath of sex crimes (for both perpetrator and survivor), and the aftermath of a natural catastrophe.  The reason that New Orleans felt like the perfect setting to me is that my fictional thriller is rooted in a real-life fact:  that over 1300 registered sex offenders went off the grid during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation, and by 2008, around 800 were still missing.  The novel's protagonist investigates that specific crime situation in the midst of a city that's still reeling from hurricane damage. The fears most invoked by the setting of 
Hell or High Water have to do, I think, with the power of nature to devastate our cultures and communities, and with the power of a criminal to devastate our psyches.

But New Orleans is also a uniquely rich setting in that it's a very complicated city with a racially troubled history.  Even today, it has many different neighborhoods that reflect extreme, racialized differences in wealth and access to political power.  The societal fear of the poor Other is part of what the protagonist Nola, a Latina who grew up in the Desire Projects in the Upper Ninth Ward (historically a poor African American area) and who now works primarily with white, middle-class people, must contend with.

We have also spent a lot of time talking about gendering. What does the woman protagonist, Nola, have to do with this image of gendering and how does having a female protagonist change the crime novel? Nola is also young. What does age say and change about the protagonist in this crime novel?

I enjoyed reading the chapter "Regendering the Genre" from Lee Horsley's book Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction that your instructor assigned.  The most significant ways 
Hell or High Water plays with gender and genre is that its protagonist combines or conflates all three of the typical roles for women in crime fiction that Horsley mentions:  femme fatale and victim, as in traditional crime novels, and detective, as in later crime novels, especially those written by women.  Without giving too much away,
I'd say she also functions as a perpetrator.  I wanted to undo some of the false bifurcations or compartmentalizations of women's identities that traditional crime fiction perpetuates.

On the issue of age:  Nola is only 27 in the novel, and she has some problems with ageism.  Because she chafes at the control her section editor Claire exerts, and Claire's seniority is an easy signifier to latch onto, Nola frames her resentment in terms of Claire's age.  This ageism melts away at the end of the novel, when she's able to empathize and imagine herself in Claire's shoes in years to come.  I made Nola prejudiced toward an older female colleague because I wanted to give Nola, who's so sensitive to inequalities of race, class, and gender, an ideological blind spot.  I didn't want her to be too perfect.

Nola is not a hired investigator, an ex-sheriff, or an experienced lawman. Instead, she is a middle-class journalist. How do her career and social class also shape the way the crime investigation unfolds?

I'd nuance this observation and note that Nola's currently--barely--middle-class, but that she comes from a background of poverty, which she does not disclose to her colleagues and friends.  This background of economic difficulty and living with chronic danger both creates tension for Nola as she tries to "pass" among her colleagues and friends and makes her keenly aware of class difference as she navigates the different neighborhoods of New Orleans.  The inequalities form part of what she reports.

The fact that she's a writer, rather than someone professionally involved with law enforcement, changes the angle of access.  She's not a medical examiner, so we don't get forensic details.  
Hell or High Water is not a police procedural.  Nola's a journalist:  a trained, persistent researcher who's good at interviewing people, uncovering facts, and shaping a coherent narrative.  That's where the focus of the novel lies:  in character, in psychology, in the facts and statistics concerning sexual crimes.

The fact that Nola is a reporter also leaves room for her to reflect on the constructed nature of stories, even supposedly objective news stories: what we include, what we leave out, and the fraught issues of power that surround and inform those choices.  By making her a journalist, the novel allows Nola to engage meta-narrative considerations.

On a personal note: What is it like having your novels read by famous authors? I saw a quote about your book from Dennis Lehane and The New York Times Book Review, and wondered how this must feel as an author living in the often-ignored city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

It's nine kinds of wonderful.

I'm very, very lucky that my first book has gotten this kind of attention. Authors are busy people, and I'm grateful that Dennis and other writers, as well as critics at great newspapers and magazines, made time to read my book.  I recently got to do the same for first-time mystery author Stephanie Cha, and I felt very happy to be able to help a new writer out a little.


So, I'll just save up these moments as they're spinning in my head and hope I'll get to teach to them someday soon.  I'm hoping to be able to do a more focused interview with Joy in the very near future, so stay tuned!  As it is, I'm working on planning my Intro to Creative Writing (250) and Intro to Fiction Writing (252) for spring, and I've just lined up Sean Doolittle to come to my 252 to talk his suspense novel Rain Dogs.  One book always leads to another!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

State of Mind: Veterans Day, 2012

On this day of observation, it's important to remember this day, 11 November 1918, the end of the worst war the world had ever known, a reminder of what happens when we forget that the enemy is just as human as we are.  In two years, we will face the 100th anniversary of the start of that war, the war to end all wars.  My great-grandfather, Harry Olson, went to serve in this war, but never saw combat.  The only stories I recall are the stories of the Christmas Truce and the incredible work of imagination that Sebastian Barry brings to the fore in his incredible novel, A Long Long Way.  Most recently, my cousin left the service after several tours to Iraq and elsewhere.  I am incredibly grateful to all our veterans, friends and family, my students in the ROTC, and those I do not know.  Thank you.

Understandably, though, war is not exactly a comfortable topic to discuss, the memories of pain and tragedy that aren’t exactly dinner table conversation.  I could count on the fingers of one hand the times that I’ve heard Bill Babine talk about his experiences in Europe, the frostbite he suffered after the Battle of the Bulge, the incident with radio wire that nearly cut off his thumb, which earned him a Purple Heart.  Part of that distance is due to our grandparent-grandchild relationship and the physical distance between Minnesota and California.  As for my grandfather Kermit, who died six years ago now, his stories of being in the Coast Guard are limited to a few anecdotes and what I remember of those sparse times is finite.  I’ll never know any more.  My father flew C-130s during the 1970s, though he never saw combat, but even his stories are mostly limited to stories about food.  I have friends who have seen Iraq, students who have seen Iraq and Afghanistan, and while I want to ask them what they’ve seen—I also feel like I shouldn’t ask.  Like what they’ve seen and experienced is private, something I shouldn’t intrude on.  I think, if they want to talk about it, they’ll bring it up.  But it’s one of those dichotomies that I can’t really come to a conclusion about—I’m worried about these valuable perspectives going untold, but I don’t want to ask about them.  I do, however, want to hear about them.

Six direct generations back, Oke Dahlberg, born in Sweden, fought with the Union Army during the Civil War.  He served with the 11th MN Infantry, E Company.  He was inducted on 24 Aug 1864 and discharged 26 June 1865 at the rank of private.  He was 38 years old, a farmer, married with several children (and more to come after the war).  And it is likely that he spoke no English at all.

My great-great grandmother’s brother Peter Thorsander enlisted in the Army at the age of 24 to serve in the Spanish-American War and he saw combat in the Phillipines.  I'm not sure Peter spoke English either.

My maternal great-grandfather, Harry Olson, married my great-grandmother, Florence, on 1 Sept 1918 and left for war on 5 September 1918.  He never saw combat, as the war had ended before he had finished training.  As a side note, it’s interesting that my great-aunt Harriet was born nine months to the day after their wedding…

My paternal great-grandfather Fred Ponsford immigrated from England to America during the height of the Great War.  I have his enlistment papers in the British Army but why he chose—or was allowed—to immigrate at that time, I don’t know.  But he enlisted immediately in the American Army Air Corps and served as a mechanic, since he couldn’t get an officer’s commission because he wasn’t an American citizen.

My maternal grandfather, Kermit, took his older brother’s place in the WW2 draft. Leonard was the one who was drafted, but Leonard was recently married, so Kermit took his place.  Kermit, during his enlisted time, served in the lighthouse system in California.  Then he became an officer and sailed on the USS Charlottesville to the South Pacific—he was an engineer—and their ship was one responsible for protecting the convoys. I spent quite a bit of time this summer scanning documents, including the records of him presiding over a court martial, which I found really interesting.  When he returned from war after four years, in these exact words, his family thought he’d been “on a four year vacation.”  Right.  War.  A vacation where they ate bread—but only after they’d knocked most of the weevils out of it.  Where they couldn’t go too close to some of the South Pacific battles because of the kamikazes.  Where the KA-Bar knife that I found on a shelf in his office at the Cabin after he died was used for more than decoration.  My grandmother reports that he never used it for its intended function, but some of the matte-black finish of the blade was worn off to keep it sharp.  A vacation, for sure.  But to a farmer, nothing else is considered work. 

After Kermit graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and was commissioned an officer, he spent time in New Orleans.  The Danish had sent the Danmark, a full-rigged sailing ship, to the United States to train sailors and to keep it out of German hands.  Because my grandfather was “such a little guy,” as my grandmother says—and the photographs of him from the time put him about five-six and skinny—he and a friend volunteered to take care of the sails at the top of the masts, fifty or more feet off the water.  I wonder what they talked about up there, the responsibility of tying those knots just right, what would happen if they failed, how many sailor’s lives would be in their hands.  I wonder what he thought of being in a place where his size and intelligence were respected, rather than being on the farm where he was bullied by his father and brother, in a time before “abuse” was more than simply how children were raised.  As far I know, I never heard my grandfather speak an unkind word about his father or brother.  It’s only in reading between the lines that we hear how it really must have been for Kermit to grow up in that house, small and slight, loving music and learning, even as he did his chores without complaining, helping out at the farm without being asked, long after he’d left it.  And so I can understand why my land-raised grandfather might have chosen the military option that was the furthest thing from what he knew, because what he knew as a farmer was not something he wanted to remember.

In one of his rare moments of storytelling—rare in that there was no prompting—my grandfather told me once about being on the edge of a monsoon.  He was up on the bridge at night, sixty feet above the water line and he sees what looks like a fire in the distance.  He calls for another opinion and yes, it’s a fire.  They set their course for the fire and the seas are picking up.  All the crew of the USS Charlottesville is ordered below decks, because the waves that crash over the ship are enough to drown a man.  The fire turns out to be a Japanese fishing boat, too small to be able to survive the monsoon on their craft, sending a distress signal by setting a fire on their boat to attract attention.  With swells getting up to thirty or forty feet, the Charlottesville launches a boat to rescue the crew.  It’s dark.  The wind is sharp enough to whip the skin open.  The sea is hungry.  And yet they go, into swells that are as high as the bridge, sixty feet above the water line.  When the crew is rescued and brought on deck, the captain of the Japanese boat orders his men to lay down on the deck, face down, their hands on their heads.  They are expecting to be executed on the spot.  Instead, the crew of the Charlottesville takes the Japanese belowdecks to feed them.  The fishermen are let off at the first Japanese port they reach.  My mother reports that the account made several newspapers.  Grandpa died in 2006 and with his death, the annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations in Park Rapids, Minnesota are lacking the only representative they had of the Coast Guard.

My paternal grandfather, Bill, served in the Army in Europe.  He doesn’t tell his stories either.  But I think his job had to do with communications, but I may never know more than the basics.

My father, Chaplain Lt. Colonel Dan Babine, USAFR, Ret., has been a part of the Air Force for all of my life and then some, finally retiring in 2000.  Faced with the Vietnam draft, he chose to enlist and became a navigator on C-130 cargo planes from 1971-1976.  When he married my mother, he switched to the Reserves.  He was attached to Grand Forks AFB for all of my childhood, leaving for his one weekend a month/2-week annual tour.  When he was promoted to Lt. Col, he was transferred to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.  My sisters and I learned how to salute properly.  We learned how to identify C-130s, though the rest of the planes are lost on me.  We know about uniforms and BDUs and rank.  We spent some time in the Visiting Officer’s Quarters on some bases when we were traveling.  We learned about all kinds of cool acronyms.  When we were little, he got us our own dog tags with our own names on them.  I’ve still got mine on my key chain.  

There’s a lot I learned about the military from him and a lot that just his commitment has taught me.  I remember hearing about the invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War when I was about twelve.  And I remember having conversations with my two younger sisters about tying Dad up and hiding him in a closet if he got called up.  It never came to that, but we didn’t want him to go.  As we got older, we had some conversations about the role he played and he never had to tell us the importance of what he was doing and the importance of the military.  We just knew that what needed to be done would be done.  He’d done a lot of training with Critical Incident Stress and how that was valuable and how he could help people, both in and out of the military.  He talked about the military wanting its most experienced chaplains where they counted and how he was willing to go wherever they would send him.  We didn’t like it, but we understood.  We especially didn’t like that chaplains couldn’t carry weapons, save a pocketknife.  We didn’t think that his little camouflage Bible would be much protection at all.

Joan Didion famously wrote that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Tim O’Brien wrote that “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”  My grandfather’s war stories aren’t like O’Brien’s war stories and they aren’t like my paternal grandfather’s war stories, which I also haven’t heard many of.  Kermit’s war stories were not for the telling.  Kermit’s war stories are the stories he could barely bring himself to tell, the ones that weren’t in search of meaning and understanding, the ones that were simply about something happening.  He never editorialized, never speculated about what other people might have been thinking or feeling.  His stories were things he could understand, as far as he could understand them.  His stories were about finding something solid as the land he left in southwestern Minnesota, the land he understood but people he didn’t, his way of finding what mattered and staying there.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

State of Mind: On My Grandmother Casting Her Ballot

Dear Gram,

I just got back from voting in the 2012 election and as I colored in my little circles for my choices for president, federal legislature, state legislature, judges, a host of constitutional amendments and more, I was thinking of you.  Yesterday you cast your own ballot, hundreds of miles north of Nebraska in Minnesota, and I have never been so proud to be your granddaughter.

When you were born, women had only had the right to vote for three years. Your older sister, Harriet, was born into a world where women did not have the right to vote (and given Harriet's personality, I'm sure that did not go over too well...).  This thing that I did today, I completely take for granted, that I have the right to vote and the rights of all people to vote in this country is measured in years and decades, not centuries.

You and Harriet were the first in your generation to go to college--not just the first women to go to college and graduate.  I remember the story you told of being at the St. Cloud Teacher's College and the Dean of Women telling all you ladies not to wear red, because it inflames the men's passions.  I find that funny now, but I'm sure she was dead serious.  Then you started teaching and in 1947, you met Grandpa, who was a fellow teacher.  Your courtship warmed in the cool air of fall football games, winter basketball games, to an August wedding in the next year and it was a marriage of strength and love that lasted for nearly sixty years.  I still miss him, a loss that hasn't healed much over the last six years.  After you married, though, you lost your job, because you couldn't be married and hold a job.  Over the years, however, as times changed, you were able to teach part time, in history and English, instilling in your granddaughters a love of stories and the importance of telling those stories.  There is power in stories, you taught us, power in the freedom to tell those stories.  As your daughter was born and grew up, women could still be discriminated against in the work place just because they were women.  They were routinely fired (or required to resign) when they married, could legally be paid less than men.  I could also mention the various women's health issues you've had over the years and how what's happening now is unsettling those things that your generation and your daughter's generation thought were settled--but I won't.

Gram, Mom, me, Mother's Day 2008
Politics was not something that we talked about very much as a family, that tight-knit little community of you and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, K2, K3, and me.  As we grew up, politics was personal and private and not something that made for appropriate dinner table conversation.  But ever since your youngest granddaughter found her calling in the political arena, politics has become very important to our family.  It's still something I consider private, controversies and conflicting arguments still make me very uncomfortable.  But you as a role model made this possible, from K3 and her activities, to the courage to make sure that C. went with her parents, M. and K2, to vote when she was only eight months old.  I know that C. is going to go again this year--and probably charm the socks off everyone who is in line.  This morning, as I cast my ballot, I got to meet Ashton, probably about a year old, and there were other children in line.  This is how we pass down our values to our children (and nieces):  we involve them in the democratic process, show them that this is important.

K3 and C., Election Day 2010
Because in this country, voting has gotten harder, not easier.  And for you, six months away from your 90th birthday, you still considered voting an essential practice, not just a duty but an honor and a privilege.  Dad told me yesterday that when he walked into your room at the nursing home, you were sitting at your table, ballot all filled out, ready to go.  Perhaps this election feels more important than others in my own memory, more at stake for the future of our country, for the world that we're bringing C. up in (and her brother, when he gets here in a few months).  But I'm carrying that image of you, sitting at your table, that determined look in your eye, making sure that your voice is heard.  Because the story is important.  And the power to tell that story, of you, is important.

Gram and C., Spring 2012
Over the course of my life, there have many moments where I have been proud to be yours, values and ethics that you have taught us by story and by action.  But today, as I voted today, as I imagine the determination on your face as you sat at your table in your nursing home to vote, given your physical difficulties and how that impacts your accessibility to voting, this feels different.  Today might be the day where I say I have never, ever been so proud to be your granddaughter.  I can't wait for Thanksgiving to come, so I can tell you in person.  Thank you, Gram.

Love, Karen

Friday, November 2, 2012

Eng. 180: William Kent Krueger Skypes With Our Class!

Seriously.  Getting my students actively connected to the larger world around them, the world outside their classroom, is truly one of the best parts of my job.  Today, in my Crime Lit 180, we talked with William Kent Krueger, author of Iron Lake (the first in his Cork O'Connor series)--the thirteenth Cork, Trickster's Point, has just been released and Kent is on tour.  Yes, that means he took time from his book tour to talk to my class of undergraduate literature students. (Followers of this blog may also recall that a year ago, Krueger was kind enough to talk to my fiction writing class and for me, it was interesting to hear two different conversations--one about fiction craft, the other about the novel as literature.)

We talked to Kent for about 40 minutes, an incredibly generous space of time, considering he's off to the north country in about half an hour.  As we hung up and collected ourselves in the last few minutes of the class, my students were so incredibly thrilled, that bubbly kind of excitement.  They were so excited that he answered their questions, had great answers that went deeper into the questions, illuminated parts of the story and the process that had been dark to them before.  Of course, we hadn't actually gotten to the part where a certain character dies, so it was a spoiler when he asked "Do you want to know why [this character] dies?"  (And if you click the above link, my fiction class had a great answer when he asked that question of them.)  Methinks that a great majority of my class will read the rest of the book this weekend to find out what happens...  Which is not a bad thing...

So, here's what we talked about.

What was your biggest challenge in writing Iron Lake?
Kent said that beyond the challenge of working full time was that he knew nothing about writing a novel, nothing about writing a book.  "Words are jewels," he told us, "and when you set them on a page right, man, do they sparkle!"  Writing every day is essential for him, that writing takes practice.  He talked about needing a good editorial eye (an eye that does not belong to the writer).  And it was most important, he said, that he needed to learn about what motivates ordinary people to do the things they do, how they live their lives, because those motivations are the heart of any story.

What did you originally include in Iron Lake that you took out?
Originally, he said, Iron Lake was a 500 page manuscript and his agent told him that she couldn't sell a 500 page manuscript.  So in the process of trying to cut a hundred pages, he went through the book and looked to see what whole chapters he could cut, then what whole scenes could be cut, then lines, then down to cutting individual words.  In the process, he lost Jo's backstory that illuminated quite a bit about her character and why she is the way that she is.  That backstory didn't disappear completely, though, and it became part of the next two books.

Do you know how a story ends when you start it?
There are two camps, he said.  Some writers know and some don't want to know.  His process works like this:  he starts with a seed of an idea, leaves it in his head for a few weeks, maybe months, and lets it grow.  Over the course of those weeks, the plot works itself out in his head, the characters, the motivations.  At the end of that process, he knows how the book is going to go.  In the first seven or eight books, he said, he went to a computer at that point and outlined the books.  He hasn't done that in the last several, hasn't needed to.

Is there anything you'd change about Iron Lake if you could?
Laughing, he said he'd change the name of the town.  There is a real place up on the Iron Range called Aurora, but it is not his Aurora, and it is about 40-50 miles from the fictional Aurora.  He says this confuses readers who know Minnesota well--and when he did an event in the real Aurora, he said he had quite a bit of explaining to do.  He also said he'd make the relationship between Jo and Sandy Parrant more nuanced.

How did you go about writing the Ojibwe culture, since you are not a part of it?
When he started, he said, he knew nothing at all about the Ojibwe culture.  And like the cultural anthropology student he used to be at Stanford (before they kicked him out), he started where all academics start:  by reading.  He read all the early ethnographies, works by Ojibwe writers.  Then, when he's finished a draft of a book, he gives it to several Ojibwe friends to read, to correct him on what he got wrong.  The response from the Ojibwe community, he said, has been overwhelmingly positive.

In a separate question (see further down) about literary influences, Krueger mentioned his indebtedness to Tony Hillerman, who was really the first to write about another culture in a mystery novel.  He mentioned Margaret Coel (and some other names I couldn't write fast enough to catch).

Minnesota has become quite a place for mystery writers--why do you think that is?
The flip answer is cabin fever, he said, laughing.  (We all spent quite a bit of this conversation laughing.)  At the end of a cold winter, it could make you want to kill somebody.  But in all seriousness, he said that the choices and values that Minnesota has come to cultivate contribute to this:  Minnesota has decided that the arts are important and Minnesota spends a lot of money on the arts, from film and theater to visual arts and writing.  Minnesota has made itself into a place that cultivates and supports artists, which is why there are so many fine writers coming from and writing about the state.  He said that he's tried to write about other environments where he's lived--Colorado, California--and they simply haven't inspired him in the same way that Minnesota has.

Do you base your characters on people you know?
Most of his characters are Frankenstein creations, bits and pieces of real people, human nature, that sort of thing.  Every once in a while a real person does show up in a book, but that usually happens as a result of things like charity auctions, and he creates a character in a book specifically for that person.  When he asks them, "Would you like to be a good person or a bad person?" the overwhelming answer was that people wanted to be bad--even his wife's cousin was thrilled to be written in as a prostitute.  :)

Do you think about the block element of "too little information" when creating suspense?
Though I'm not sure he knew exactly what we were asking, Krueger said that the willing suspension of disbelief in a mystery novel is based on one thing:  that a reader believes that a character is desperate enough, greedy enough, scared enough to commit murder.

What writers influenced you as you were starting to write mysteries and who do you read now?
He said that his father, being an English teacher, raised his kids on Literature With a Capital L.  (And I anticipate this aspect being a part of our classroom conversation as we continue to discuss "what is literature?") So he was raised on the classics, not even reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  So when he started writing mysteries, he read Tony Hillerman and other contemporaries, and now he's going back to read the classics, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald and James M. Cain, those ones.  (I wanted to talk to him more about this classic aspect, because we've read some of the same works--Poe and Conan Doyle and Christie--and Krueger did say to send him an email when we finish the book (this was in the spoiler alert about the character who died) and I might ask him to elaborate on this at that point.)

We asked other questions, about the role of the Windigo, about revision and drafting, about writing a series.  We finished up by talking about his new non-Cork novel, Ordinary Grace, which is set in southern Minnesota in 1961 (it's being released in March) and I asked about the difference in writing a novel set in northern Minnesota and a novel set in southern Minnesota.  For myself, I know these two areas fairly well and I know there would have to be some differences.  He said in reality, the sense of place is just as important in Ordinary Grace as it is in the Cork novels, and we didn't really have time to get into the ways that the flat, agrarian, very-German aspects of the Minnesota River Valley shape people differently than the wooded areas of the Iron Range, other than he said that the very individualistic aspects of people in the north contrast very strongly with the need for community conforming in the more agrarian south.

At the end, we thanked him, signed off, and in the remaining few minutes, my class and I talked about what we'd just heard.  They were so excited.  Bubbly kind of sparkle in their eye kind of excited.  A few of my students stayed after class as I packed up my bag, seemingly unwilling to want the experience to end.  Yes, my dear students, this is learning at its best, where the conversations and the learning and what you know and what you don't know crosses the boundaries of the classroom and you take that energy with you into the rest of your day.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Eng. 151H: Politics and the Classroom

As a general rule, I stay away from political topics and such in my classrooms.  I don't like to teach truly controversial topics, I don't like to get into debates (I don't even like to watch the presidential debates...), and I tend to structure my classes around other things I think are (also) important for students to know and I will leave other topics, which are not my area of expertise, to those for whom it is.  My youngest sister is in politics and my stress level could not handle that job.  As a teacher (and as a human being) is not to tell anyone what to think.  I may raise an issue, present different viewpoints, but ultimately the final conclusion someone draws is up to them.  Even if I think it's wrong.  It was why, when we were talking about food systems with our second Writing Project, I had to keep repeating that it was not my goal to convince anyone to be a vegetarian.

Perhaps I should have known better when I chose to teach The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to my 151H class.  For Wednesday, when we started the book, we had a delightful author presentation by three students, which gave us background on the book, the author, Henrietta, HeLa, and more.  It was a truly excellent example of an author presentation and why I like to have students do them.  I was so proud of them.  Then, I gave my students a copy of Peggy McIntosh's classic "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" and we read it in class.  I asked them to free write a little, react to what they'd read, and in the last little bit of class we came back together and talked about their impressions.  To my everlasting bafflement, the consensus was that there was no such thing as white privilege and if there was, it was not a bad thing.  I was so completely speechless that I had very little to say in response.  Fortunately and unfortunately, we'd run out of time and we'd continue in the next class (today).

I've been struggling for the last two days about how to accept that what we're going to be talking about with this book is going to be a process--and it's going to be a longer process than I expected it to be.  To be honest, I expected that we would read McIntosh's article on Wednesday, my students would be shocked to recognize themselves in some of those statements, and that would be the disorienting we needed to talk about the book and all the issues that it raises.  When that didn't happen, it's required some serious work in directions I didn't expect.

Today, I walked into class, prepped with some things I wanted to say, but really apprehensive about the way that this class would go. These are smart students--it's an Honors class--all white, and from what I've gleaned from their conversations, conservative nearly to a one.  That's been disconcerting.  So I put a timeline on the board:

  • 1920:  19th Amendment 
  • 1932-1973:  Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments
  • 1929-1974:  North Carolina Eugenics program (Oregon went till 1981)
  • 1954:  Brown vs. Board of Education
  • 1955:  Rosa Parks arrested
  • 1965:  Voting Rights Act
And I made another list:
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Class
  • Privilege
  • Issues of Consent
  • Reproduction/Reproductive Rights
We talked through the first list, made sure everybody knew what we were talking about.  19th Amendment was women's right to vote--yes, women have had the right to vote for less than a century.  We talked through the two medical programs.  Education desegregation.  And still another ten years for the Voting Rights Act to be passed.  And I brought up how these issues are still not resolved.  I had them talk through voter suppression efforts in this election cycle that are disproportionately affecting poor and minority voters that statistically lean Democratic.  I talked about women's rights and women's rights over their own bodies still an issue (most hadn't heard Richard Mourdock's comments on Wednesday).  These are still issues.

Then we listened to a NPR interview with Harriet Washington about her book Medical Apartheid--in which she talks about scientific racism and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.  Here's the interview (it's about 12 minutes):

After the interview finished, I had them find a moment in the chapters we read for today where they stopped, paused, moments where they had a specific, solid reaction to what they read--it didn't matter what it was, what mattered was the pause. I had them write about that moment, putting it into context with the interview, with history, etc. We didn't get enough time to talk about what they wrote, but they have a Think Piece due on Monday, so that should be very interesting. We went to the beginning of the text to start with the epigraph from Elie Wiesel, taken from a book on Nazi experiments--and we talked about what frame of mind that particular quote and its accompanying context put us in. I spent specific time talking about my students' specific reactions to what was written, laying off the ideas of white privilege. As class progressed today, I began to understand the actual process of this and to be heavy-handed about it at this point would be counter-productive. I asked them how they felt reading the scene where Henrietta goes into the bathtub and feels the tumor on her cervix. My students admitted to being uncomfortable. I asked why Skloot might want us to feel uncomfortable. I asked why Skloot used clinical terms like cervix and vagina and uterus, instead of more comfortable euphemisms. Why would Skloot want us, as readers, to be uncomfortable? Maybe it was my imagination, but I think I saw their synapses firing in different ways.

 We talked about gender and reproduction in these chapters, the particular moment where the doctors in the Johns Hopkins hospital viewed the public charity ward as a research base, simply because the patients were not paying for treatment and serving as research subjects (even without their knowledge or consent) was justified. I could have hammered home white privilege here, but I didn't. About the only time I mentioned it was when Henrietta and Day moved to Sparrows Point to work in the steel mills, where black men got "the jobs white men wouldn't touch." This, I told my students, is white privilege--the luxury of choosing what job you will have and what jobs you will not touch. This still exists. There are still jobs that white people will not do. And that is an unaccountable privilege that is not shared by other races and ethnicities. And then I dropped it.

 I don't know what's going to happen on Monday. My stomach is still in knots from today. Maybe I should explore this feeling of being uncomfortable in my own classroom and see where that leads me. At the very least, this should be an incredibly interesting Writing Project.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Eng. 180: Serendipity at the Sheldon Art Museum!

So, as many of you know, we've been talking about place in crime literature all semester.  We started by talking about Poe's use of architecture, which echoed through Agatha Christie and many others.  Tomorrow night, Tuesday 23 October 2012, a serendipitous opportunity to hear Sarah Burns talk about Victorian architecture and creepy stuff.  How exciting is this??

Eng. 180: Interview with Dennis Lehane!

Last week, we finished up Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and my class and I formulated some questions that he agreed to answer via email.  I was not expecting to get answers so fast, but last night, I come home from a truly spectacular conference in Milwaukee (which, as many of you know, "spectacular" generally does not denote a low-energy affair, so I was exhausted, which may have been exacerbated by the 10-hour drive from Lincoln to Milwaukee and back)--and what should be waiting in my inbox, but our interview!  I can't wait for class (later) this morning to share this with my students!  And, yes!  That's a lot of exclamation points for this early in the morning!



How do you go about writing your novels?  What is your writing process like?  Do you write longhand?  Computer?  What was your specific inspiration for Mystic River?  How many drafts did you go through for this novel?
I write in the mornings or late at night. Always hit the chair every morning for at least 3 hours. I write longhand and/or on laptop. Completely depends on my mood. The inspiration for Mystic River was moving to Charlestown in the early 90's, a historically clannish, 100% Irish, mostly poor-to-working-class neighborhood of Boston that had just been discovered by the real estate frontiersmen and yuppies looking to live closer to downtown. When I first lived there it still had plenty of rough edges but I could read the tea leaves, and I wrote myself a note: "What happens when Pat's Pizza becomes a Starbucks?" That's Mystic River in a nutshell. It took my another six years to begin writing the book because I didn't have the necessary muscle when I first came up with the idea. The book took about four or five drafts if memory serves. 

When creating characters, do you ever favor one over another and do you find yourself becoming attached to a certain character?  How much control do your characters have over the plot?  Do you let them free and write wherever they take you or do you know from the beginning what will happen in the story?
I usually have prior knowledge of three or four things that have to happen in my novel--one beginning thing, one middle thing, one end thing. Everything else is discovery. Sometimes characters pop up who speak to you with a lot more clarity and volume then others. Sometimes they're minor characters who present their case to become major ones. When that happens, I listen, because so much time is spent chasing characters down and begging them to talk to me. When one does so, freely and unbidden, I treat that like a gift from the gods.

How do you create a character’s dialect in a way that adds to the flavor of the story without being distracting?  What sorts of local knowledge—like dialect—are you conscious of writing into your characters?
I always had an ear for dialogue, probably because I came from a place where people spoke in a very vivid manner. I'm not conscious of writing it, though. It's just innate and organic. 

How did your upbringing affect the ways you use setting and character attitudes in Mystic River?  How are you aware of the ways you use the natural and built environments in this novel to create suspense?  What ways do you see this story as rooted in this place, that it could not take place anywhere else?
The neighborhood is a character in the novel, quite possibly the most important. It couldn’t take place anywhere else because East Buckingham doesn’t exist; it’s my amalgam of all the urban Boston neighborhoods. It was my way to look at the tribalism that defined the city for decades, for good and ill. Since I grew up very much a part of that tribal culture I certainly felt comfortable writing about it.

How do you go about writing societal fears, such as violence against children and violence against women?  Are you conscious of having an overall agenda as you write a novel, an overarching principle you want the reader to come away with?
I never bring an agenda into the book. If it bubbles up organically—as I assume it will—I deal with it as seems appropriate but I’d prefer to come bearing questions not answers. I’m not a big fan of the novel-as-scold. As a reader I’m there to be entertained and learn something about the human condition, not to be hectored or lectured. 
The relationship between law and justice and punishment is extremely complicated in Mystic River, a relationship that is essential to crime literature (crime disrupts the social order and and something must happen to restore order by the end of the tale) and causes the reader to question what constitutes justice.  (We just finished reading Rebecca, where a murderer went unpunished (at least by legal standards) and we were rooting for that murderer to go free.)  Can you respond to the complications of law/justice/punishment in Mystic River and how you created them, as a writer?
It’s playing around with American myths regarding regeneration through violence and the outsider who rights the wrongs society is unable or unwilling to. Jimmy Marcus is the classic American gunslinger hero—he follows his gut; he avenges the sins no one cares to avenge; he is absolutely sure he is right. Punch line is—he’s wrong. The novel is something of an assault on the idea that might can equal right or that we should forego trust in our institutions and the better angels of our nature simply because our emotions are boiling hot enough.
Many are critical of genre literature and crime fiction (recently Jeffrey Eugenides in the By the Book interview in the New York Times).  What position do you believe genre literature occupies in the larger world of writing and literature?  What do you see as it offering that other modes of fiction do not?  What do you see as the value of crime fiction?  (And we are noting that you use several different modes in your own work—from the PI in the Kenzie and Gennaro novels to a complication of that mode in Mystic River, etc.) 
The issue isn’t genre. The issue is whether something is formulaic or not. If I pick up a genre book where the hero cop and his family are targeted by the serial killer because this time it’s personal, well, I’m tossing that book aside. But if I have to to choose between, on one side, THE BIG NOWHERE or CLOCKERS—both books in which the main characters are policemen who, on some base level solve crimes—and, on the other side, the latest dirge about “the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut” or some piece of clever meta-fiction wholly unconcerned with character or story, it’s no choice at all. The former is literature, the latter is “literary fiction.” I’ll take the literature, thanks very much.
What authors did you read when you were starting out, writing your books?  Which authors were influential—and in what ways?  What current practitioners of crime literature do you think are doing particularly good work these days?  Where do you see the genre going?  What are you reading right now?  What books would you recommend to us?
I was most influenced by urban novelists like Richard Price, Pete Dexter, Elmore Leonard, William Kennedy, and Hubert Selby. I also looked up to those who’d transformed the crime fiction genre in the late 70’s and through the `80s—James Crumley, James Ellroy, and James Lee Burke. Then, because I’d studied to be a short story writer for so long, I’d say Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, and Hemingway’s short fiction left a mark. Graham Greene cast an enormous shadow. The people who are currently doing great work in crime fiction are legion but ones who spring immediately to mind are Daniel Woodrell, Ken Bruen, Gillian Flynn, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Laura Lippman, Michael Koryta, Stuart Neville, and Val McDermid.