Louisa May Alcott once resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living from her. Unlike Miss Alcott, my own predilections don’t tend toward existential muggings. Neither was I ever completely comfortable with much of the advice handed out by successful people such as: “Take the bull by the horns!” or “Seize the day!” Bulls are large and dangerous animals. I’ve been to rodeos. But at least I knew where I was supposed to grab the bull. Days, to the best of my knowledge, do not have handles. Or horns. My own life has been encountered not as if I am marching off with a steely determination to firmly grasp anything by a body part, but rather more like a mad dash to avoid a large dog and probably more hijinks and monkey business than was good for anyone.
I was born Southern. My “people,” for generations, were from rural north Louisiana (where I’m originally from) and Mississippi. To be “Southern” is to be mythologized in much the same way the Irish are mythologized. Part of this is a connection to storytelling. I grew up in a household surrounded by the written word, the child of two academics, moving from Baton Rouge to Madison, Wisconsin and then ultimately settling in Bloomington, Indiana. Growing up in what was termed the faculty ghetto, I was not only immersed in literature and the power of words, but, through my father, I was also brought into the world of film, as he was, and still is, a film scholar. Location was another factor. Growing up in southern Indiana I remember finding a map of “Cultural Zones” in the United States. The only place on that map where three zones met at the same point was right were I was, The Corn Belt, The Rust Belt, and Dixie. That was pretty fertile ground for a smart and aware kid steeped in the narrative vehicles of literature and movies and rock music.
The first set of stories I connected with as my own were the folklore of my cohort of kids. Haunted houses, dangerous paths, local heroes and villains, the strange but true. It was through the legends and tales and stories we heard and helped create as children that we organized and explained our world, and ultimately made that small world larger and more interesting than it might otherwise be on the surface. Somethings obviously never change. Those are the same reason I still make up stories. And I remain fascinated by local folklore and urban legends, and they are always part of my novels and stories.
I suppose like many writers, I remember always enjoying writing—making up stories, the act of creation—always being praised by adults for my ability to do it. But whenever the dreaded question was presented, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” the word “writer” would quickly be followed by the internal voice saying, “Yeah, but that’s not really a thing. You can’t do that.” I had to concoct another answer on the fly. Twelve-year-old me never understood exactly how one became a “writer.”
I went through a bewildering array of jobs, settling mostly on public sector and non-profit work including international NGOs. My focus shifted from environmental protection to peace activism to social justice to homelessness to hunger to public health and poverty and institutional racism. But through it all, deep in the background, I kept writing. Screenplays, stage plays, short fiction, and then, finally, a novel. That novel, The Arts of Legerdemain as Taught by Ghosts, won a Bronze Medal from the Independent Publisher’s Book Awards for Best First Novel, and was a short-list finalist for the Lascaux Fiction Prize. That book’s success finally pushed me to truly invest in my writing and I got an MFA through the Solstice Low Residency Program at Laselle University in Boston where I was awarded the 2019 Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellowship. And now a second novel. I’m currently living and writing in Hudson, New York with my partner and keeping connection with our two adult sons, who are also on the path of telling wonderous stories as part of the film industry.
As to the genesis of American Still Life, and, for that matter, of The Arts of Legerdemain as Taught by Ghosts, since they share a location as well as an important secondary character, well, perhaps a life is best described by metaphor.
Many years ago, I was driving on I-74 right at the Indiana Illinois line just coming into Danville, Illinois. It was in the great gray throbbing ache and depression that was the midwestern winter. I believe it was a Sunday late in the afternoon and it was getting dark. I was tired and my mind was wandering when I hit a patch of black ice on the highway. For about twenty seconds that felt like about thirty years I was out of control with no breaks or steering and heading for a concrete bridge support at seventy miles per hour in slow motion. Suffice to say, my tires caught dry pavement and I regained control of the car before I exploded against the bridge footing. I pulled off the road and got out and walked around in the cold for a while trying to get my head straight and my nervous system back into something approaching equilibrium. That story is true. It’s also my metaphor.
For about thirty years that felt like about twenty seconds I was out of control, without steering or breaks heading straight for a slow-motion explosion. Substance abuse and alcoholism being my life’s black ice. Got damn close to that bridge footing. But fortunately, my tires caught dry pavement about ten years ago. Most of the writing I’ve done since is the walking around in the cold air part. Trying to clear my head. After all those years of (admittedly self-inflicted) crap I went through I have a lot of stories in my head. A lot of characters talking to me, images, lines of dialog, plots. I think I also have a message in a bottle to toss into the sea of time to my twelve-year-old self. I now maybe know one way to become a writer: to become a writer, you have to live a life, for better or worse… and pay attention to it while you do.
Regal House Publishing is proud to bring you American Still Life in the fall of 2024.