Friday, May 8, 2009

WORDS THAT MATTER

Hi again,

It occurred to me as I was writing 'American Masters' that there has been a disconnect between readers and writers. I mean, so many people seem to be reading only for pleasure (which ain't bad, but bear me out), that I began to realize that many readers simply don't know why the classics are the classics, or why they too might be a pleasure to read. What has happened is that classic literature has been intellectualized beyond the ken of most readers. When they think of the classics they think of words like high-falutin and artsy-fartsy, instead of having an image of some great read they can refer back to again and again.

This is a newly-formed idea, so I'm just working it out here on the keyboard. (And I want to hear your comments on this). If people just sat down and read some of our classic American literature without thinking they had to understand every minute detail of it setting out, why, they might find that they actually enjoy themselves. They might find that Huck Finn dressing up like a girl is just a plain old hoot to read. They might find that the hero of 'House Made of Dawn' connecting up with his ancestral stories and the hero of 'Ceremony' connecting up with the rituals that make one well, are just plain good reads. (Not to mention that a reader might get the idea that they, too, are connected with an ongoing story that extends all the way back to the American nation and before.

What I'm saying is this: why should only a few of us gain the pleasure of reading the classics when so many others could benefit from it. Then, instead of feeling like they have to read the latest any-old-thing to come out, readers might be a little more discerning in their reading.

Come on, what do you think? I found in writing 'American Masters' that our stories are important. That our words do matter. And that what we read and write is important to the future. Add a comment please - it don't cost you noffin'.

Keep reading,

Jim

Saturday, May 2, 2009

HOW I FOUND MY STORY IDEA

People have asked where I got my idea for 'American Masters', the popular history of American literature and authors.

Well... One day I was reading about Flannery O'Connor. I had never read much of her stuff, so I was just skimming - it didn't hold much interest for me. But then I learned that little Mary O'Connor, Flannery's real name, taught a chicken to walk backwards when she was six years old. It was such an extraordinary feat that it was picked up by Pathe News and the film was shown across the country. There was little Mary on film, helping with her chicken. She claimed that was the climax of her life. Everything after that was anticlimactic. What else did I not know about Flannery O'Connor? Alright, so I'd pick up one of her short stories and see what it was about. Then I was hooked. I had to read it all. Two novels and two collections of stories. She died young, of Lupus. (Why do so many great authors seem to die so young)?

Get this picture now. I have been reading most of my life. Even as a young man I read classic literature - ask my brothers. I was a nut. Kids on the ball diamond would ask if I was going to use 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' for first base. I never got any respect. But even with all the reading I had been doing, I had somehow missed Flannery O'Connor. What else had I missed?

I decided then and there to start over. I started to systematically read American classics beginning clear back in the colonial times with Cotton Mather, and then with Benjamin Franklin during the struggle for independence. What I found was that these two writers were connected. They lived in the same neck of the woods and back then it was a small neck. Of course they knew each other! As I was reading, I found many such connections and many, many, interesting stories from behind the scenes of American literature. Now we were cooking.

In short order I read and re-read everything from Hawthorne to Hemingway, from Melville to Morrison. It was great. I dug in and really got their stories. When I got around to writing, those stories just flowed from my pen (and onto the screen). So, now I have this book, 'American Masters', and it is in the hands of an agent right now and...

That's the story behind the story of 'American Masters'. Stay tuned for more.

Jim

SWINE FLU - 'THE PLAGUE'?

"Death thou comest when I had thee least in mind." - Everyman

This everyman quote seems so appropriate right now. Everyone is fearful about becoming infected with this latest strain of the flu and about what methods might be used to prevent us from getting it. But really, the plague is as old as humankind. There are some mighty nasty bugs out there. They're sneaking around right now, waiting to get in. If it's not one, it's another. And while we're focused on swine flu, it may be something else entirely that will get us. Sorry, that's just how it is.

'The Plague' by Albert Camus (1947) is not comforting either. Originally published in French as 'Le Peste', it is the story of one Doctor Bernard Rieux who, leaving his surgery one day, (April 16th, to be precise), stepped on something soft. It turned out to be a dead rat! I use an exclamation point but really, there was nothing to exclaim about. It was simply a dead rat. He asked the concierge to dispose of it.

But then, that evening, Doctory Rieux "saw a big rat coming toward him from the dark end of the passage. It moved uncertainly, and its fur was sopping wet. The animal stopped and seemed to be trying to get its balance, moved forward again toward the doctor, halted again, then spun around on itself with a little squeal and fell on its side." (I am quoting from the Random House edition translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert).

That is only the beginning, of course. Next, patients begin to show up for examination with fever. Then the whole town is infected, it seems. Things progress from bad to worse, as they say.

But I'm not going to spoil it for you. My intention is to get you to go and read this excellent book. My intention is also to point out that there is nothing new under the sun. That's why classic literature is so important. When we read for entertainment alone, we miss out on the deep sense of connectedness that comes from getting to know the masters of world literature. The stories they tell are timeless. That's why they're classics.

I think it was Mark Twain who said something like, "One who doesn't read great literature has no advantage over the one who does not read at all."

So read it. Let me know what you think of it.

Keep reading,

Jim