Penny Shorts–an online journal with an interesting spin.

Cynthia  A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

Cynthia
A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

On Wednesday morning I received a tweet advertising that my short-story “Don’t Crows Eat Corn?” was now available on the on-line journal Penny Shorts. And the tweet was accompanied by this stunning portrait by the Russian/American artist, Moses Soyer.

(Later, the editor Catherine Horlick said that “This portrait by Moses Soyer reminds me of Sandy [the protagonist in my story], although in fact the story is like a painting by Edward Hopper, who so brilliantly depicted subjects trapped by life.”)

The turn-around had been extraordinary. On Tuesday evening, I had received one e-mail accepting the story, another that attached a PDF of the proofed galleys, and a third asking for a photo and a short bio.

Even taking into account that the UK-based Penny Shorts was five hours ahead of me so that while I slept they were working preparing copy, it was a very quick and pleasant surprise.

The fledgling journal has an interesting “business model.” Readers can purchase individual stories for 50p (about 78 cents in U.S. dollars) or they can buy a variety of subscriptions that give them access to multiple stories during the course of the subscription. Agents and editors are given free access.

This was the text of the tweet that was set out:

J.P. Bohannon’s story ‘Don’t Crows Eat Corn?’ is new on pennyshorts. The day after her mother’s funeral, Sandy has to hide a bruise on the side of her head. http://bit.ly/1TCpHBr

And so, the link to the Penny Shorts web site in general and to my story in particular was tweeted out to the world. It was efficient–and quick–marketing.

As an editor, Ms. Horlick has been a pleasure to work with, attentive, professional and warm. Moreso than anyone else I have met in the business.  For those interested in reading or writing or both, you should visit her Facebook page or the Penny Shorts website itself.

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Truth, Fiction, and Bigger Truth

A few days ago I received a message from my friend Gerry Bracken who started off with the words “I rarely read fiction, but I picked up a copy…” And he recommended a detective novel based in L.A. to where I was then flying.

Maria Popova's Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

Yesterday, I was browsing through Maria Popova’s blog, “brain pickings,” and I clicked on her bookshelf. (http://bookpickings.brainpickings.org/) Her site routinely discusses books, authors, and readers. And the titles she list are predominantly non-fiction: titles that I jot down and often pick up at the library.

And then last night, I read the ExPlore twitter posting (also managed by Maria Popova). It listed Bill Gates’ reading list for the Summer of 2013. The list is daunting, fascinating and wide-ranging, but except for a single novel, it was all non-fiction. (Click here to see list.)

What is with this reluctance to read fiction? Are we wasting our time? Or more importantly, am I wasting my time.

There once was a time, when the reading of fiction–particular of novels–was considered by many as a harmless past-time for idle girls and not the pursuit of serious, intelligent people. But that was 200 years ago. In the interim, fiction has taken on a bit more gravitas, a bit more legitimacy.

At times, however, I feel haunted by that ancient attitude. And at other times, I feel deliciously guilty for sinking into a novel. Shouldn’t I be learning something? Shouldn’t I be boning up on something? Refining what I know? Discovering new ideas?

Well, I don’t know.

A while back, I ghostwrote a book on the history of Ireland. I researched assiduously, read primary and secondary sources, talked and listened to people and their stories, pored over all the news reports, particularly those on the current events that were unfolding before my eyes.

books.transatlantic_1

Colum McCann’s true fiction TransAtlantic

But I know I never got near the truth that I got in reading Colum MCCann’s novel Trans Atlantic. The section(s) on George Mitchell and the Irish peace negotiations, for instance, was better history than I could have ever gleaned in a biography or history book. There was life in those pages, in the account of Mitchell’s days in Belfast, on his dealings with the myriad politicians and organizations, in his observations of the ordinary people and the details around him. Did everything happen the way McCann described it? Probably not. Was it true? I believe very much so. A bigger truth than the historians can share.

I have learned much from fiction–I have learned about people: people in drastic circumstances, in simple ordinariness, in great passion, and in wrenching heartbreak. I have learned about pride and hubris, of great loyalty and great betrayal, of sacrifice and of love. I have met more people in the pages that I have read than I ever could have in the life that I led.

And, in a way, after all, that is what we’re here for–to learn about the wide variety of fellow human beings who share our moment in time and space.

I need to turn my back on this guilt about reading fiction.

I can’t write, so I read Denis Johnson…

…and now I know I can’t write.

At times I feel I’m kidding myself. Who do I think I am pretending to be a writer, a poet, a thinker?  I am just an everyday slug without the discipline to get anything really worthwhile done.  And discipline is what you need. How many times do we hear that just showing up is 90% of the struggle?  Just do the work, day in and day out, we are told, and the creation will come.

I don’t do the work.

jesus-sonAnd so as I sneak off for my hour-and-a-half, two hours, I try to jump-start my atrophied mind by reading for a while at first. Unfortunately today, I began re-reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of eleven wise, lively, brutal, intense, truthful short-stories.

I’ve never felt so washed up in my life!

The first story,  “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is riveting. It’s like a very bad car accident that you can’t turn away from. The narrator, the hitchhiker, has been on the road from Texas to Kansas City. The first driver fed him amphetamines and Canadian Club;  the second ride was a hashish filled bubble to the city limits; and the third ride was the fateful ride–a family of four with a nine-month old baby on the back seat, destined to be brutalized in a head-on collision. The narrator is flawed and generous and seemingly prescient, for he seems to know that it is this family that picks him up that will suffer. His final words long after the car accident and while being admitted to the Detox at Seattle General are puzzling–if not telling: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

God, could it be Jesus’ son?

Much later in the collection–one could label Jesus’ Son an episodic novel rather than a collection of short stories with its single narrator and progressive (though disjointed) chronology–the narrator is in detox and is shaving another man. (The drugs they are giving him have steadied his hands to such a degree that he has taken to shaving fellow patients.) Here is part of the scene:

Just below one cheekbone, Bill had a small blemish where a bullet had entered his face, and in the other cheek a slightly larger scar where the slug had gone on its way.

“When you were shot right through your face like that, did the bullet go on to do anything interesting?”

“How would I know? I didn’t take notes. Even if it goes on through, you still feel like you just got shot in the head?”

But they aren’t Bill’s only wounds. “I’ve been shot twice,” Bill reveals. …”Once by each wife for a total of three bullets, making four holes, three ins and one out.”

This is the world of Jesus’ Son. There are bullet wounds and heartaches. There is addiction and abortion, love and lovelessness, disease and car-crashes and murder. Johnson once said about his stories “Some of us go to the movies to see everybody shooting each other, and then there’s another bunch who actually shoot each other.” It is this latter bunch that people Johnson’s stories. But in addition to “shoot[ing] each other,” they seek salvation, search for love, and try to survive on the wrong track that life has set them on.

Intense and unsettling, witty and thrilling, the stories are both unforgettable and beautiful.  Something any writer should aspire to.

So, Another Weird Coincidence…

So, I had sneaked out to this coffee house to do this wee bit of writing and reading. And I was considering saying something about the title–Jesus’ Son–and how it was taken from the Lou Reed song “Heroin.”  I had just decided against it when Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” comes on the sound-system and that sealed the deal.  When I mentioned the coincidence to the guy at the counter, he replied, “Lou is everywhere.”  I didn’t know, hah!

So, if you want, here’s a recent version of Lou Reed singing “Heroin” from where the title came:


Book Review: Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner…coming of age in Scotland

Chisolm Tartan 2013 jpbohannon

Chisolm Tartan
illustration © 2013 jpbohannon

Alan Warner belongs to a certain group of writers who came of age in Scotland in the last decades of the 20th century. Those with more recognizable names would included Irvin Welsh who gave us Trainspotting, James Kelman with his unique voice of urban rootlessness, Ian Banks (who died last week) and A.L. Kennedy with their distinctive fictions, and Ian Rankin who gave us Inspector Rebus and his Edinburgh detective novels. Among these, Alan Warner seems the one who has gained less recognition over here in the States. And that is a shame.

Warner’s first novel Morvern Caller was a magnificent tale of a young woman who steals her dead boyfriend’s novel from his computer, changes the name on the manuscript and quickly and decadently burns through the advance that the novel garners, moving from her dilapidated Scottish town through the ravages of the European rave scene. A later novel with the unfortunate title The Sopranos follows a group of high school choir girls from a rural western outpost on its class trip to Edinburgh. Both novels are memorable for their voice, for the seeming accuracy of Warner’s portrayals of 16 and 17-year olds. And both are fun.

Warner returns to the same locale from which Morvern Caller and the girls from The Sopranos escape in his newest novel, The Deadman’s Pedal. And again, he is dealing with characters of a certain age, characters who are between childhood and adulthood, characters who are innocents even as they are losing their innocence.deadman-s

The novel takes place around “the Port,” Warner’s fictionalized treatment of the town of Oban in western Scotland and is held together by the train line that serves the area and which is dwindling in impact. In fact the title “Deadman’s Pedal” refers to a device that on a runaway train is set to brake in the case of an engineer losing consciousness.

Simon Crimmons is turning sixteen and wants to quit school, get a motorbike, and get a job. He is considered well-to-do by his companions because his father owns a trucking company, but wealth is a relative thing, and the Crimmons family is certainly working class in comparison to the lordly Bultitude’s. In fact, Simon, the town and the novel itself are greatly aware of class distinctions. And this is a running theme throughout.

Yet it is in terms of young Simon’s desires that the class distinctions are most evident. For he is torn between the beautiful and always available Nikki Caine from the Estate houses and the enigmatic Varie Bultitude–of the town’s legendary, aristocracy. Managing such affairs is always risky and managing one between such two disparate worlds is like being on a run-away train.

When Simon mistakenly gets a job as a trainee train driver–he thought he was applying for a hospital position–he discovers the extent of these class divisions. He says to Vaire, “I’ve got the whole railway telling me I’m not working class enough and I’ve got you telling me I’m not middle class enough. This country needs to sort out the class question. As far as it applies to me.”

And to make matters more difficult, Simon’s father is caught up in it as well. He sees his son’s work on the trains as a betrayal, as his son’s working for a competitor that could ultimately put him out of business. It’s never easy being sixteen. It seems much harder for Simon Crimmons.

The joy of the novel–apart from the very real depictions of young desire, lust, and confusion–is the language itself. Some may find the dialect off-putting at first, but it quickly becomes second nature, but the narration itself is pure genius: A funeral for a dead train man is told with humor, nostalgia and poignancy; Simon’s first kiss is described as sweet, anxious, innocent and thrilling; the grounds of the Bultitude property are given an almost gothic eeriness and grandeur. (The Bultitudes are said to bury their dead in glass coffins…the aristocracy is always with us!)

Early in the novel, Simon and his friend Galbraith show Nikki the secret hideout they have built out in the wilds. They make her promise not to mention it to the other boys knowing that it is a childish thing and that the others would tease them for it. It is here that Simon and Nikki first have sex– in a short scene that is both innocent and knowing. It is a scene–positioned in his boyhood escape– that captures the very tension of this novel, the tension between innocence and adulthood, between desire and attainment, between the people and their landscape.

Alan Warner Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner
Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner is an extraordinary writer. That his name is little known outside Britain is an injustice, but one that may be set aright by Deadman’s Pedal–a novel that is larger than its Scottish setting, a novel that is universal in its wonders, its desires, and its struggles.

“Likes…and Dislikes”: something to think about

I’ve been reading a lot of Susan Sontag lately: her journals, her book Illness as Metaphor, and a slew of blog posts. One of these excerpted a journal entry in which Sontag not only analyzed why we humans like lists but that produced a list of her own likes and dislikes. Essentially, she was standing up for or against particular aspects of modern life. Most of us “jot down” lists, but this is probably the wrong phrase for this activity, because thinking about what one actually likes and dislikes is a more difficult thing to do than I first imagined, more involved than mere jotting. I know, because I tried.

2013 jpbohannon

© 2013 jpbohannon

At first I worried that making such a list bordered on the narcissistic. Who really cares what a person likes or dislikes? Do we make conscious decisions with any of this knowledge about other people? I doubt it, particularly in our day to day interactions.

But making such a list could be enlightening, for oneself. No one else needs to know. Sit down and think about the world and what you actually enjoy and what you find annoying, painful, sad.

However, if created lightly, without much thought, this list ends up sounding like the profile of some air-headed celebrity: “I like moonlit walks on the beach…, etc.” A far cry from the list Sontag created.

And to put any such a list out there is a bit risky…and again a bit self-involved.

I spent a good bit of time thinking about what I like–which writers and musicians, what art forms and what cities, what quirks of my own and what indulgences, what parts of everyday life and what special dreams. It was harder thinking of those things I didn’t like–the things I find annoying seemed petty when put on paper, seemed like too much kvetching, and was beginning to be forced.

So I put my list together and I worked hard at it and I decided it didn’t need posting, after all. It was good enough for me: “the examined life and all that.” Hah!

Book Review: Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1966 Susan Sontag

illustration by jpbohannon 2013

Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
illustration by jpbohannon 2013 (based on painting by Juan Bastos)

There is a danger in reading memoirs, diaries, journals. Certainly, there are times when our angels are shown to have feet of clay. Or other instances, when we weigh the turmoils and angst of a particular life with the end product that impelled you to read the memoir in the first place.

But with Sontag it is quite, quite different.

Next to even her young self, I feel so inadequate, so shallow, so wasteful of time.

Here is a young woman–14 years of age when the journals begin–embarking on a intellectual career that would put most of us to shame. Her reading lists, her “to-do” lists, her debates with herself, her analysis of events, readings, concerts and people she meets, her experiences, all are more fervent, more intelligent, more thoughtful in the years between her 14th birthday and her 30th, than mine have been for most of my life.

Susan Sontag bookcover

I teach a group of extremely bright 18-year old boys. They have great intelligence, and some are quite creative. But every so often they need to be reminded that their superior intelligence is frequently measured within the very small pond of our school.  Here’s what I read them from Sontag’s journal:

…Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it–but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast…

I ask them to describe the person who would write this in his or her personal journal.  And they are always far off…in both gender and age.  Sontag wrote this (a snippet of a much larger journal entry) two weeks after she had turned 17!  Already her depth of reading and understanding and active thoughtfulness is evident.

Immediately in this first volume of the journals, one meets a brilliant, thoughtful intelligence. She attended Berkeley at the age of 16, transfered to University of Chicago, married Phillip Reiff–a sociology professor–at 17, taught at the University of Connecticut when she was 19, and attended graduate school at Harvard, where she got her degree in philosophy and theology. And throughout these years, she recorded her thoughts and criticisms and interpretations, as well as her fears, her doubts and her insecurities.  As her marriage began to falter, she received a fellowship to Oxford and then moved to Paris. When she moved back to New York in 1959 (26 years old), her marriage was dissolved and she had gained custody of her son. Established in New York, she began teaching at various colleges, completed her first novel, The Benefactor, and witnessed her reputation as part of New York’s  intelligentsia begin to grow.

These are the years covered in the volume. Aside from the inquisitiveness, interpretation, and analysis of what she reads, sees and watches (she was a rabid film-goer), there is the struggle of understanding who she was. The marriage was unsatisfying, the lovers often hurtful, and in reading the journals we see a young woman trying to discover herself and come to terms with her own individuality, her own bi-sexuality, her own identity. There are times when one feels she is too hard on herself…when one wants to warn her, NO, this is going to end bad, but then again, one can’t.

Beginning when she was 14 and ending when she was 30, the journals are remarkable for their honesty and the peek into her rigorous mind.  But at the end, one is moved by the ever-going struggle between her sexuality and her intelligence, by the vulnerabilities and insecurities she reveals in her two major love affairs with Harriet Sohmers Zwerling  and Irene Fornés.  For her extraordinary mind struggled continually to understand the extraordinary pull of the flesh.

Her last two entries for 1963 read:

The intellectual ecstasy I have had access to since early
childhood. But ecstasy is ecstasy.

Intellectual “wanting” like sexual wanting.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

Reborn is the first of a proposed three volumes of journals. The next volume–As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh– covers the years 1963 to 1964, when Sontag develops her reputation, her political activism, and her writing. It is now on my “to-read” list.

Adam Phillips: Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

illustration by jpbohannon

illustration by jpbohannon, 2013

In the office of a colleague a while back I noticed a towering pile of books on the desk, as if he were re-arranging his book shelves or carting out old titles to a different location.  But no,  it was his “to read” pile, and it was impressive and imposing.

Among the authors gathered, there was one whom I had not heard of–Adam Phillips. A psychoanalyst by trade–specifically a children’s clinical psychotherapist–Phillips read literature at Oxford, specializing in the 19th century British romantics.  And as the “science” of psychoanalysis has always been symbiotically tied to literature,  a degree in literature seemed the perfect training ground.
Adam Phillips photo: Andy Hall

Adam Phillips
photo: Andy Hall

And so I decided to dive in.

Of Phillips’ seven or so titles, Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature seemed a reasonable starting point. And, the frantic busyness at the end of the school term made a collection of independent essays more attractive and less of a task.
 

“As poets struggle to find a place in contemporary cultural reality, psychoanalysts, implicitly or explicitly,  are still promoting the poets as ego-ideals.”

Philips, “Poetry and Psychoanalysis”

The crux of Phillips’ essays is the mutual relationship between literature and psychoanalysis…and psychoanalysts’  established reverence for creative writers. Literature, according to Freud, gave birth to psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis often gives resonance to literature.

And so go his essays.

He begins with the essay “Poetry and Psychoanalysis” and brings in the young poet Keats–a former medical student–who famously stated that science ruined poetry when Newton reduced the rainbow to a prism.  Not so, Phillips says, for poetry (and you can read “creative writing” where Phillips says “poetry”) can do what the sciences cannot.  Indeed, much of his argument is that the science of psychoanalysis is bringing understanding to the vision of poetry.  Freud said, Phillips tells us, that the poets had long before discovered the unconscious, and that he only had devised a way to study it.

Phillips graciously gives way to “poetry” saying that the short history of psychoanalysis has been an attempt to study the unconscious that poetry reveals. And since both poetry and psychoanalysis–the “talking cure”–depend on language, and often, coded language, the two are intrinsically welded together.

And so he is off.

There are marvelous literary essays on Hamlet, Hart Crane, Martin Amis,  A.E. Housman and Frederick Seidel, all informed by an accessible shading of psychoanalytic theory, as well as masterful psychoanalytic pieces on Narcissism, Jokes, Anorexia and Clutter, informed by a broad knowledge of literature/poetry.  It is Phillips’ contention–his modus operandi, if you will–that the two disciplines can or should depend on each other for clarity.

Hamlet-and-skull-on-stampThe collection ends with the title piece, “Promises, Promises.”  In it, Phillips examines the “promise” that both literature and psychoanalysis offer. He writes:

“If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field.”

What does reading literature promise us?  What does analysis promise us?  Phillips contends that both promise us, to a degree, “the experience of a relationship in silence, the unusual experience of a relationship in which no one speaks.”  Of course, ultimately, the analyst must speak.  But it is in that silence that often we become “true to ourselves.”

Reading psychoanalytic theory can often be dry and dusty, but Phillips’ writing never is. Bringing in an encyclopedic knowledge of both creative literature and psychoanalytic literature (and, at times, arguing that there might not be a difference),  Phillips imaginatively and wittily plumbs past and current trends, canonical and esoteric literatures, clinical practice and private correspondence to bring to light his vision of psychoanalysis and literature’s potential and promise.