Plainsong, One Book-One LincolnJul 16, 2023
I wanted to talk a little bit about where I come from, as you know if you've just been reminded that I come from the northeast corner of Colorado, that part of the state that most people cross as fast as they can to get to Denver or Aspen or Vail or Glenwood Springs or Colorado Springs any of those places my father was a Methodist preacher we moved around a lot we lived in three small towns in that part of the state. I usually say about northeastern Colorado that it's not pretty, but it's beautiful if you know how looking at it makes you slow down if you're going to see what there is to see on the shortgrass prairie plains if you need to slow down and look closely attention the great English writer actually began in this country and James said that a writer is someone in whom nothing is lost.
I want to believe that in some small way that is true for me. If so, the fact that growing up on the plains had something to do with there being a big advantage for me. I grew up in small towns, like I say, I lived in three small towns until I was in high school and then we moved to the mountains in Canyon City. The advantage of someone who was trying to write realistic fiction, probably as obvious as it seems. you have a very keen sense of place, a very concrete and distinctive sense of place when I was a child, I could have walked through the alleys of that small town or those small towns that I lived in and known stories about all the people who lived there in their stories and their legends and probably not more than you're supposed to know, but if you're trying to write realistic fiction, like I say, it's a huge advantage, you know all kinds of people, you know whose dogs are loose, you know whose bike is parked in front of the donut shop you know whose truck it is Park where it doesn't belong you know the town mayor, the town idiot and the town drunk are probably the same person, no offense, but All those details, all those facts about how to ride in small towns is very very useful for someone like me who was trying to learn to ride.
I also want to mention some people who have been very important in my development and had something to do with who I became, preeminently my parents, my dad growing up. on the farm and in the Badlands of North Dakota, in the western part of that state, if you know that part of the state, you know it's dark and difficult. My grandfather emigrated from Germany in the 1880s. He was 11 years old. He was the oldest of the children who came, he made his farm there, there were 13 children in my father's family, my father was in the middle of those 13 children, they lived so far from the city that my grandfather hired a school teacher just for the HERA family, my father after he went to 8th grade he wanted to go to high school but my grandfather was not so sure about that so my dad went to 8th grade twice hoping that his father would decide to allow him go to high school roomed with an old A widowed woman who chopped firewood and shoveled snow went to high school in Dickinson, North Dakota and then went to college and finally seminary, so she had come a long way when he finished his formal education from where he had come.
Mom grew up in south central South Dakota on a sheep ranch near the Rosebud Indian Reservation, which is why pregnant teenager Victoria Rubidoux has that last name just as my grandfather rented land from an Indian family whose last name was Roberto, so I I used it for affection because of that detail in my family's history. My parents were great readers, they read
books all the time. I think my mom read more fiction than my dad. Whatever, I doubt she read a lot of fiction, but I remember seeing them read constantly. My mom read stories at random. us while going on a family vacation to South Dakota.
I remember that one of the stories she read was by Mari Sandoz, her great
bookcalled Jules which certainly had an influence on me and also my father was a great storyteller, some of my best memories are there. at the table after dinner listening to him tell stories, especially if we had company, and the stories he told that mattered most to me were the ones he told about his childhood in North Dakota, so I guess it doesn't surprise me. that I grew up to be someone who wanted to read books and tell stories because that's what I thought adults did and so I hope that all of you who have grown up in families that have read books and told stories certainly found those things important to me.
I also want to mention the other people who have informed me in my childhood. One of them was a fifth grade teacher I had whose name was Miss Keen. In this book I refer to her in a kind of a somber way, but at least she is mentioned in this book and, again, I want to say that, as a kind of tribute to her, she was an extraordinary woman, she was tall, she was quite ugly and horse-faced, but she was extraordinarily attractive in terms of her intellectual and spiritual makeup. She had been a journalist in London during the Blitz in the Second World War and told her stories about which she confided in us, even when we were young, with those kinds of stories, she encourages us to work at our own pace and she encouraged us to write stories and to tell and write poems and one of the poems that I wrote for Miss Keane was so good that I still remember it and I'm going to recite it right now , as you may want to take notes of the poem.
So says Daniel Boone shot a raccoon in a pond in June, you can see that at the age of 10 Zoster is already trying to figure out how to be specific about time, place and character, she mimeographs these stories and poems. that we had written them and sent them around the school district, so we already published it at the age of 10 and that was important to me, she was an extraordinary woman, this was in the 1950s, I think she was only there in that small town because she was taking care of her invalid mother after she had finished teaching there for two or three years, she went on to teach at one of the black colleges and universities in the South, so she was the leader of the country generally speaking in terms of civil rights then when I went to college, I came here to Nebraska Wesleyan and I had my mind on becoming a biology professor until I walked into Harold Hall's American literature class, this is Harold Hall, sitting here in the front, I'm a little intimidated by him sitting right here, dr. hall was the head of the English department at Nebraska Western and when he was a student there and in his classes I started reading Faulkner in Hemingway for the first time in my life.
I had read a lot before that, but not those two giants. in American literature and I was so stunned, so shocked by what they could do on the page, that I have never gotten over that shock and I don't want to, and I owe a great debt to Harold Hall for introducing me to those writers. and to teach me some things I needed to know, I have often said about him that when I came to Wesleyan I was like most other eighteen year olds and he ended up knocking me out and I mean it. way and I've been grateful ever since and also while I was at Wesleyan Leon Satterfield and I built F corn were there and those students or gentlemen invited or sitting back there Leon taught one of the advanced writing classes, the only advanced writing class that I ever I was a college student and I think I wrote my first horrible story in his class, so he was important to me and Bill Clef Corn was at Wesleyan at the time and of course he was already writing his poems and was a great model for those of us who wanted to ride and now that I think about someone, I think Bill once asked you how you became a poet and I think you said something like you grew up in south-central Kansas and certainly that has a I think it has a lot to do with it. with what's going on with you, but if you haven't read Bill's poems or his memoirs, I urge you to do so tonight and Lyanna is still writing and writing a column, as you all no doubt know. because the journalists are every two weeks, so I had good teachers and I was very lucky after I graduated from university.
I knew I wanted to do something with literature. I wasn't sure I wanted to ride a bike, but I did know I wanted to do something with the words on the page I went to the Peace Corps in Turkey I worked as a high school teacher there and on the Anatolian Plateau I have no illusions that it was of any value or that what I did was of any value to that country, but it certainly was of great importance to me and I am inclined to say now that I feel somewhat distressed by what I think I see in this country regarding to Muslims and Muslim countries, Turkey, of course, is a Muslim country and the people I met in that small town on the Anatolian plateau were as good and as bad as anyone I knew as a child and it relieves me to think that there is a kind of intolerance and jingoism in this country that denies everything considers muslims and muslim countries in a negative way in any case, while I was in Turkey I started trying to write some short stories and I wrote some at night, they were horrible, they were execrable, but I made an effort to try to write some. fiction and later, as you may have heard, I went to the Writers Workshop in Iowa and began studying fiction writing in a more formal way.
I made some progress, I got a scholarship the second year I was there and so I started my apprenticeship my I think the apprenticeship was maybe excessively long or longer than most people would have to do. I didn't publish anything until I was 41, all that time I was trying to make a living and, right around the corners, around the edges, the hardest thing. learning how to make discovering how to make it is making a living while learning your craft anyone involved in the arts knows that the great Canadian writer Alice Munro has written to me very interestingly about the problems she had and how she tried to find time to write fiction, she ended up writing in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet with the door closed while her children walked outside, but she finally finished her work and of course it was worth it and she is one of the best writers in the world since then. then I published some books and things are going well in life, my life is good, as you may have heard.
Cathy and I live in the mountains of Colorado and we are very happy there, that's why I tell people that after 30 years It was an overnight success, I guess everyone heard those questions about the death, the two deaths main points in this book, well, these two little boys are alone most of the time their parents have separated, they are left to their own devices and so they go. through a whole series of advanced exposures to things they are not prepared for, they see this raw scene at the end of the sex in the window, they experience cruelty, the mother has withdrawn, all these things are happening to them, so one of The things that happen to them as you refer to, they see the death of a horse that they care about and this is their first real encounter with death and they are shocked by it and it is quite graphic what they see and when their father tells them asked at the end of that scene when, after dragging the horse to the pasture, the dead horse, if they want to drive well, they say no, because at this point after that moment they have already had enough adult experience and they don't want any more in that moment old lady IVA Starnes has become important to them on both sides of that equation which I think is true and in several other relationships in this book people need each other, they may not be aware of it but they do and They often respond to what is offered to them later, but they begin to get something from these relationships and, certainly, the IVA stones get something from the guys' visits to her and they get something from their visits to her, and so on when they finish.
When they go up to her apartment on Main Street and discover that she has died again, at first they are shocked by her death, shocked by her corpse, but they stay there long enough to get the store pass and in the end they decide to touch her a again and I mean that's the kind of affectionate gesture on their part that kind of affectionate farewell I don't want to make more of it than it deserves but what but when they get home then they discover that their father is not at home and they need some kind of comfort, something will happen to Nazeri, something like what they just saw and so they did, they instinctively went out to see the McFerrin brothers because they know that the McFerrin brothers are men who will take them in.
The adults will then take them in and of course I give us that little scene in the chords of Si at the beginning of the book where the two little children have been introduced to the two old men and they recognize them as kind people and, in fact, they are. Raymond specifically invites them to come whenever he gives them some money and treats them generously, so they instinctively come out and when they open the door they are surprised that it was not them who opened the door first, but the At that moment, the girl Victoria Rubidoux had been out there long enough to change a little.
She takes them on the tool. Men take them and seem to recognize that they need help even though they don't know why and they don't do it. I don't question them in any way and they take them in and the girl gives them something interesting: nowshe's ready to be some kind of mother, although she's not literally a mother yet, so those kinds of things happen in this book and then I think these two little children have gone through a whole series of experiences that exposed them to adults in the world. from adults to the cruelty of adults, well, that's what I had in mind, what possessed me not to use quotes, what's wrong with me?
You're okay. I once got a letter from a woman in Illinois who said she had stopped reading after a battle of I don't know what a quarter because there were no quotes around the dialogue, and she closed her letter by saying she hoped she wasn't a teacher. English, of course, I was an English teacher for almost thirty years. I don't have much of a theoretical defense for my practice of not using quotes around dialogue in this book, except to say that I like the way the pages look and it's a matter of the way it appears visually.
I like its clean and simple appearance. It seems to me that it adds a kind of tension that might not have existed anyway, otherwise it caught my attention when I was a student and dr. In Hall's classes, when I first read Faulkner, if you think about some of the dialogue passages and the sound in the fury and the nakedness, those dialogue passages or without quotes, I was very impressed with the way he I saw and the kind of innovative quality. That's what I wanted to try myself when I wrote the first book, the tie that binds, I wrote it in manuscript without quotes and then I gave in to convention and when it was published, but this at the time I wrote this book and I decided not to do it, for Of course, I'm not the only writer who plays with punctuation convention.
Faulkner is preeminent in that, if you think of poetry, of course, EE Cummings, but among more contemporary fiction writers, Cormac McCarthy, none of his own. novels have dialogue without quotes around the dialogue some of Raymond Carver's stories choosing Minot's novel Night If you know Charles Frazer's novel Cold Mountain you remember what he was doing was messing with the British system of using a - in front of dialogue if you think about some of James Joyce's early stories, he does that, so there seems to be a kind of Tennessee towards breaking that convention. It seems to me that you can break any convention if you do so without confusing the reader.
I expect a careful reader to be able to distinguish between dialogue and exposition if only the dialogue in this book is written in the present tense the exposition is in the past tense if I have confused you that is a defect of the book that is my mistake but I hope I have not done that is what I was thinking about there are cases of abuse in this book because I think there are so many cases of abuse and in so many people's lives I don't think I had anything in particular that I wanted to say about that except to notice what happened and pay attention to it. how people responded to that, of course, Victoria Rubidoux is abused in some ways because her boyfriend abuses her in various ways and her mother kicks her out of the house, those are types of abuse o What I believe is also true that there are people of goodwill in the world, well, there are people like the McFerrin brothers and there are people like Iver Stars, you're taking the one that takes in two small children, so I don't have anything didactic. or any controversy I want to get into regarding abuse but I am simply trying to write a story about people with problems and in the case of the woman in the restaurant who slaps her daughter that woman I think we have to understand or I have to assume that it is a single mother who is harassed and worried about her own problems when her daughter.
I think you're referring to the scene where the girl spills chocolate milk on the table, that's true, yes, and that woman is in trouble and We certainly can't tolerate or accept that kind of response to a child, but that woman is too. is in trouble and therefore when you're trying to write realistic fiction, all the things between the supporting characters should be of value to the store, they should advance the story to match the conversations at the bar, all of those things, in some sense they have They have to advance the story or they shouldn't be there, and in that scene there is another note in a Minor Key regarding the entire story you're asking about.
Your phone is a fictional city. Yes, it's a mafia and probably from the cities I know. Small towns. I have named the streets for my own purposes. I have done in the county seat there is a court there. I'm not referring to him. I don't believe in this book what I know and in one of the other books, so yeah, it's a made up place. You know, fiction is not autobiography. There are some things that come from my experience, but even a novel like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which seems very autobiographical, is still a creation, it's still a kind of molded art and I like to think that's true of this book, but certainly it is fiction it is an invented place I want to maintain that it says something true about the human condition in some way it seems to me that fiction is truer than the truth it is a different type of truth it is a type of formed and organized truth but it is, but it is after the truth.
I think the question is should I remove it or add it. That's what you said, okay, and in terms of the writing process, like Patty just said, I've learned to try to write. in a rather strange way of trying to regain some sense of well-being, first of all using a manual typewriter when I write the first draft and then using this old yellow paper that I really like and I'm very frugal with, I write on both sides, you can't buy it anymore, but there, when writing that first draft about throwing my eyes and writing well blind, the obvious paradox is that you write blindly in order to see and Try not only to see clearly but also to avoid rewriting the same sentence over and over again, something I tend to do anyway and is too easy to do on a computer, so my method to avoid it is to do what I do.
What I just described is a very short draft and it's all complete single-spaced on a sheet of paper that's just a draft of a scene or a section like the section I just read. Then I'll spend the next two weeks on a computer. I'm trying to develop a little more to give more details and add I guess that's the extra part, but I hope it's okay. I want to be careful not to lose what might be spontaneous or natural in that first draft. and I'm just trying to develop it further, so in that sense I'm doing both, but I would also have to say that at this point in my career, as it stands, I'm trying to write it simply and directly and As clearly as I can, simplicity and clarity seem to me the best of the greatest virtues of good writing and, as everyone knows, writing simply requires some efforts.
The more I know about writing, the more difficult it seems to me. Do it, it's the hardest thing. I know how to do it. Your standards always change. You don't want to duplicate what you've already done, all that kind of stuff, so I make an effort to try to write simply, so in that sense. I have learned over the years to detach myself, as you say, anyway I mentioned the Orthodox religion in this book, but I want to state that there are aspects of this book that are spiritual and religious, as any Orthodox faith would recognize, let me give you An example.
Surely it is a mark of any religion when the stranger appears at the door and knocks and wants to come in, that someone of good spirit, someone of good faith, someone with an open heart, someone with spiritual values, would admit that person and receive him and him. would give. give them something to eat and give them comfort I believe that Jesus himself said something to the effect that if you have done it under the least of these you have done it to me and I refer to that act as a spiritual act Victory was cast out by her mother, She wants to return to that house but she doesn't go in there, she goes with Maggie Jones and she has been taken in by Maggie Jones who keeps her as long as she can and then the two older brothers take her in, the two little children taken in by vat storms and so on, those me They seemed like spiritual moments.
Spiritual acts regarding this book certainly do not occur within the confines of a church, but nevertheless seem to me to be acts of genuine spirituality and religion. Regarding the title, the title is the last thing I always think about in health. I don't think I have much facility for naming anything. Janie could Sammy. I'm not very good at naming children, although I really like their names. It's the last thing on my mind and you might be interested to know that when I sent it to my agent and he sent it to the editors it had a different title, its original title was oh, they tell me about a clear day, that's the one an old bluegrass gospel song made popular by Willie Nelson, among others.
It's a song that I like a lot. Well, what's wrong with that title? It's too long, isn't it? and no one would remember it, so that's what the book was about, Bob. I started thinking again about what I should call this story and one day I was looking in a dictionary and I found the term plainchant and that seemed appropriate to me for reasons that are probably obvious I used the definition from that book as an epigraph. and then at the beginning of the book it appeals to me because it's a term that refers to early music, it's simple, unadorned music that's usually sung in them and the seven or eight unaccompanied parts there's a very obvious pun in it. that title I'm singing your song about. plains people playing people on the plains, something like that, so all of those things were part of deciding that as a title.
Whether it's a good title or not is debatable, but that's what I came up with anyway, let me close by doing this and I'm going to embarrass my wife on purpose here and then they'll catch us good. I have asked that from time to time if I have researched a story and in this case the autopsy of the horse was accidental. type of investigation that was out there that the day my older brothers one of their best Cowboys horses had died at the vet was to open it to see why it had died and, in the case of Victoria Rubidoux, after a long time, the day She has to go to the doctor for a prenatal exam.
I needed objective information on that and I haven't been pregnant recently so I had to have something specific about it so I convinced Kathy and she was very willing to let me do it. go with her to her gynecologist appointment, so we were both in the room when the doctor was examining her and she had her feet up in the stirrups and I was sitting next to her with my notebook in my pen and I paid close attention to what they were doing and when they finished. I asked the doctor what she was thinking about at that moment and why she did what she did and when she did it and I also asked her what she would have done if she had been seventeen years old. girl and what he would have told her, so I took all that and of course once you have that information, you have to make a scene, you have to dramatize it, you have to make it attractive.
I'm going to make up the dialogue and I tried to do all that, but as a way of closing let me say that I owe a lot to my wife and not least, thank you, thank you all for coming out.
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