American Folk

Discovering new music is always an interesting journey -most of the time a new band is uncovered in relation to an artist that is already familiar (thank you Pandora), but sometimes the discoveries come out of left field like a glow in the dark lawn dart late at night. The latter best describes how I came across American folk musician Amber Rubarth, but I am getting ahead of myself.

A backwards story: hardware to music

Short of watching KEXP videos on YouTube, I typically rely heavily on Pandora and friends to discover new artists and genres of music. However, sometime around March of this year, getting an itch to upgrade my existing stereo system, I started researching speakers and the many sundry other things required to build a 2-channel system from the ground up. Now almost 4 months later I still do not have a stereo, but do have a much broader exposure, for better or worse, to the niche world of people who call themselves “audiophiles” (An audiophile is a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction). My research began purely to try and understand hardware related things like speakers, amps, etc -but one of the fun parts of this endeavor actually ended up becoming learning about the music used by these said “audiophiles” to evaluate the systems they were reviewing. I do not remember where I first saw Amber Rubarth mentioned, but I know it was one of Steve Guttenburg’s many videos, where he talked quite a bit about the amazing sound of her Chesky recorded albums. Chesky is a label based out of New York City, known for their uncompressed, live recordings which are often done in churches and other venues with naturally good acoustics. They also use binaural microphones for the recordings to simulate the way the human ear receives sound, giving the recordings a very natural signature and also making them pretty epic for headphone listening. After falling down the rabbit hole of research, I decided to see what Chesky and Amber’s albums sounded like.

Folk music is not foreign genre to me, there have been times when the Avett Brothers or Lumineers would cycle through my listening sessions, but it was never a staple. That being said, I have quite enjoyed the sound of Amber Rubarth’s music -acoustic with a heavy reliance on guitar and stringed instruments for many of the arrangements. The Chesky recorded albums “Sessions from the 17th Ward” and “Scribbled Folk Symphonies” both have a very real sound to them -with the instruments and vocals being reproduced with a sense of real presence in a room. If you enjoy folk music, or like bands in similar genres, then Amber Rubarth’s albums mentioned above are definitely worth checking out -relaxing to listen too with a beautiful sound. She has made many more albums than just the ones listed above; however, I tend to re-listen to the same basic pieces over and over and over and over after discovering something I like -so I cannot comment on her other discography since I haven’t actually listened to it yet.

Strive
Just Like a Woman
Ball and Chain
You Got Through

Reflections on Lost in the Cosmos

On the heels of finishing Percy’s satirical self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, I take a moment to reflect on the causes of my recent obsession. For those rolling their eyes at this topic because of a glut of recent conversations with me about Percy, feel free to stop reading and come back once you have made yourself a gin fizz and calmed down.

A couple reasons for this obsession are purely environmental:

  • Percy lived near where I live now
  • Also near where I live, the bar at the Southern Hotel serves half-priced old-fashioned drinks on Walker Percy Wednesdays in honor of Walker Percy

But also, the interest lies in the humor of Percy as well as the relevance of many topics to contemporary thought. Lost in the Cosmos illustrates these traits, but it is a difficult book to describe. The subtitle of the book is “The Last Self-Help Book,” but even this fails to illuminate what the book truly contains. It is a mixture of satirical self-help (suicide is recommended as a cure for depression in one of the more humorous, if off-color, chapters) as well as miniature short stories describing possible futures. The end of the book concludes, for instance, with a story of a space odyssey to find extra-terrestrial intelligence in the cosmos.

Lost in the Cosmos also contains:

  • Chapters that “can be skipped without fatal consequences” that seem pulled from an academic work (semiotics and triadic relationships) (p. 83). It is a heady but humorous section
  • Chapters of “self-help” that analyze quirks of humanity, such as what a sales clerk actually means when a person tries on a new pair of shoes in a store and the clerk sees them and says, “It’s you!” (p. 21)
  • Parody of both religious and non-religious people, scientific and non-scientific people
  • Humorous theories about why it is that artists and writers are often troubled souls, insane or addicted to substances, gambling, sex, or otherwise. The theory purports that when artists or writers create great works of art, they transcend mundane reality and go into orbit around it, similar to an astronaut making it through the earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. This transcendent state is beautiful and harmonious. Except that, eventually, Dostoevsky finished writing Crime And Punishment and was forced back to reality–and to cope with this, he headed to the gambling hall to play roulette. Re-entering the atmosphere, Percy theorizes, is difficult and perilous, and many artists have difficulty with this. To enable re-entry, Percy notes that artists find different ways to manage–anesthetization with drugs and alcohol, travel (either geographical or sexual), exile (where the traveler skips re-entry entirely and vanishes into the void), and more.
  • discussions of sex that may make some uncomfortable (not sexually explicit or lurid but simply frank description of human behaviors). In a chapter describing a space odyssey in a futuristic society, Percy describes with the patience of a researcher the different combinations of people that scientists tested to satisfy the “sexual needs” of the astronauts. He describes some combinations of individuals as devolving into conflict. Most of the experiments only highlight man’s inability to control or master themselves, despite the incredible progress of science and mastery of the world.
  • Interesting chapter titles. Traditional writing advice says to write a killer opening sentence to draw the reader in. Percy utilizes interesting chapter titles also, such as this one (chapter 9):

The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self–though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill–in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

p. 57

This chapter concludes, of course, with a quiz for the reader to notate their reactions to different unfortunate situations.

By this point, I imagine that you have either decided “I am NEVER reading this book,” or this has piqued your interest, and you are now ready to read something unlike anything you have read before.

Some of this writing (especially the bit about suicide) seemed macabre and off-color until I listened to a lecture about Walker Percy – available here. In the lecture, the Professor Jennifer Frey reveals that the issue of suicide was very real for Percy–both Percy’s grandfather and father committed suicide prior to his 14th birthday. Themes of being an ex-suicide echo throughout Percy’s writings for understandable reasons. In addition, Percy was not always a “Southern Catholic writer.” He was born Protestant (nominally Presbyterian), and based on my reading came to really embrace Catholicism while recovering from tuberculosis in New England. It was only later in life that he relocated to Louisiana, near New Orleans, married, and came into his self as the writer he is remembered as today.

He also wrote–a fact that is apropos for 2020–against segregation in the magazine Commonweal in the 1960’s. Clearly, he was a man with a great deal of wit and intelligence, who thought deeply on many topics.

These topics include issues of self – how do we transcend our material reality without throwing it away entirely? Who are we in this universe? What enables a depressed person to go on living? What is the role of a person’s faith in the world? What questions can’t science answer? As I have been discovering and hope you will too, Walker Percy is a voice for our times because he dealt in his writings with issues that have only more vital since he lived.

An Interview with Joseph M. (#4 in a TMW Interview Series)

Today we conclude our interview series with reflections from our most senior writer, Joseph M. Click here to view the full series of interviews.

For all the aspiring artists and writers in room, this one is for y’all.

What artists or writers inspired you the most growing up?

There are quite a few, but a couple of my favorites would have to be Hergé and Jeff Smith. Both are in the unique position of being both visual artists and storytellers, and I recall spending many hours reading and enjoying the sleuth/adventure series Tintin at a reasonably young age, and the fantasy epic Bone by Jeff Smith once slightly older. Both men are some of my favorites to this day.

Which artists inspire you the most today?

This really depends on the week, but below are some different artists I have been looking at/reading over the past year or two. Once again, just as with Hergé and Smith, these artists primarily contribute to comic books:

  • Watercolors: nothing beats a detective noir story cast with anthropomorphized animals -and Juanjo Guarnido does an impeccable job using watercolor to portray the many adventures of the main feline protagonist in Blacksad. Another artist I particularly like for their watercolors would be Jean Pierre Gibrat -who uses the medium to tell a variety of period pieces set during the first and second world wars.
  • Inked Linework: My two latest favorites for visual storytellers who use pen and ink would be Francois Schuiten and Sergei Toppi. Both bring masterful draftsmanship to bear in their comic book stories while maintaining distinct styles.
  • Fantasy: while not contributing to comic books, Frank Frazetta’s unique take on fantasy settings is one I have found interesting. Another artist, Mark Schultz, who produced the comic Xenozoic, is another fantasy artist I have enjoyed a lot.

What is your writing process? Has it changed at all over the years?

My writing process is normally an afternoon or evening of adrenaline-fueled panic to meet a deadline (for example, to get something posted on this blog every fourth Tuesday). I would say my approach to writing has become less structured as the years have progressed and life has gotten busier with other activities -not a recipe for success, but reality, nonetheless.

When you write, do you have any tips for minimizing distraction?

Setting aside dedicated time to write is important for being able to settle into a focused groove without other distractions, even if for just a short period of time (remember: multitasking is a myth). Also, minimizing internet access can be useful. If writing involves a lot of research, I find it better to do that research in advance if possible -given the nature of modern web business models, trying to productively write AND surf the internet for information is all too prone to end up on a three hour binge of random YouTube videos.

If you were to give an aspiring writer one piece of advice in pursuing the craft, what would it be?

Whatever you do, write regularly. A regular, repeated, approach to any subject you want to progress in -even if for just a short period per day -will reap long-term rewards. It is just like compound interest except for life skills -the sooner you start making those small daily investments the bigger the long-term gains will be.

What is the worst book you have ever read, and why?

That prize would probably have to go to the textbook for my Management class in college because other than learning that “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” is a thing, I remember nothing and got nothing out of it. 

If you were trapped on a desert island with 3 works of literature: The Scarlett LetterPlato’s Republic, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which work would you burn first as kindling for a signal fire, and why?

Definitely the Scarlett Letter. I have nothing against Nathaniel Hawthorne, but given my time on this island may be quite extensive, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plato’s Republic strike me as offering more varied and deep food for thought as my brain slowly descends into the madness of isolation.

Have you noticed any changes in the literary landscape since you were in high school?

I do not feel that the landscape has altered so much as my perception has changed. I now realize more fully how much good literature existed prior to my birth and how little now being created will likely be remembered after we all die. I do not think this is unique to our day and age (after all, who remembers most of the penny dreadfuls?), but nonetheless I appreciate time’s ability to cull the less rewarding works from the common cultural consciousness.

Who are some modern authors whom you admire? Do you think people will be reading them in 50 years?

Brandon Sanderson comes immediately to mind, and for more regional flavor Tim Geautreax. Whether people will be reading them in 50 years is quite uncertain -I think that the way Tim Geautreax is able to capture a time/place/people in his short stories is quite natural and relatable -but who knows once those places and people are gone how appealing his stories will still be. Sanderson is certainly talented, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any of his books and he is competing in a pretty active genre (young-adult/adult fantasy series).

What factors do you think elevate a work to the level of classic? What factors can limit a book’s generational impact?

I think that there are a variety of factors. If a work captures something ‘true’ about the human condition, relationships, etc -that story can transcend any single culture, race, or time period. If we look at the many timeless classics though: Les Miserables, Hamlet, The Divine Comedy, etc, etc -they all contain truths about human beings that are universally applicable -and thereby relatable regardless of people group or generation. As far as generational impact goes, that both depends on the culture of the author and the reader. I think that stories that are heavily colored by aberrant generational views inherently will wane as time progresses, but insofar as those views reflect reality they stand a chance of continuing.

I know you are a fan of graphic novels…favorite graphic novel?

Well, it is more of a mini-series, but Bone by Jeff Smith is what I would want if I could only have a single comic book to read for the rest of my life.

What motivates you as a writer?

Epinephrine released in response to the harsh driving our dear editor (jk). In all seriousness though, writing has been a great way to systematically study and seek to process new ideas or subjects.

Are you working on any larger projects you can share about?

There are always a few ideas banging around in the attic. Lately I have been considering trying to write a short story in the cyberpunk genre. However, more realistically, some essays or possibly longer pieces related to recent/ongoing studies through the Gospel (Sonship study), Law (Bahnsen), and demon possession (Kraft) will be more likely to happen in the near future. 

Day Lilies

This poem began as a mistake.  Inspired by the photograph I had just taken (see above), I began thinking of a line from a Wordsworth poem and integrating it into some lyrical lines of my own.  Before I knew it, I had a little poem all done.  Then when I showed it to a family member for feedback, she pointed out that the flowers weren’t daffodils (the flowers in Wordsworth’s poem) but day lilies.  Which I knew.  But had briefly forgotten in my excitement.  So I went back to the drawing board and wrote this poem, which I actually like better, as it turns out.

“Day Lilies”

When I lift up my windowpane

To bask in breezes or the rain

To hear the rustling leafy rills

Or look beyond my windowsill,

To see a wren a step away

To watch the windy forest sway,

‘Tis then I spot, heads turned away,

The demure lilies of the day.

‘Tis then I sit and smile a while

In sun or cloud as day’s dial

Drags its fingers across the scene

And draws evening’s curtain, closing

The lilies and the day, sending

Birds into their nests, and bending

The trees into figures of gloom

Till day renews with lily bloom.

An Interview with Jack M. (#3 in a TMW Interview Series)

TMW has embarked on a series of weekend posts comprised of interviews of us blog writers (scroll down a couple posts to see the last two entries). Today, the esteemed Jack M. provides his perspectives on various writing and book-related matters.

Please note, Catdust respectfully takes exception to some of the comments in Question #7.

Interview

1. What form does your inspiration usually take? As in, do you usually start with a concept, a character, a plot, or something else?

The threat of a deadline is the usual source of inspiration, but I cultivate a backlog of ideas to pull from when I need to write. Some ideas begin with a phrase – Death & Taxis, for instance – whereas Frank’s Social Experiment was inspired by a conversation with a friend about a what-if question: what if someone found a way to go literally months without social interaction? What would they be like after all that time?

2. Pick a favorite author, and tell me what you like most about their writing style.

Walker Percy conveys subtle humor into his writing, and he can turn simple topics into entertaining reading. cf his essay, “Bourbon, Neat”

3. What are two or three writing traits that you most want to emulate? What are two or three writing traits that you most want to avoid?

Traits of Percy I most want to emulate? Humor, and the ability to flank comprehensive barriers – or instance, to describe a concept such as biblical love, but in a way that moves past the cultural clichés associated with that word and into something that breaks through to understanding by use of a different vehicle – often fiction.

Avoidable writing traits in general? Loquaciousness and sentimentality and reliance upon convention. I haven’t read enough Percy to have identified traits of his I’d want to avoid.

4. Name a book that you didn’t expect to enjoy, but did.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins – or at least, I read the first several chapters and enjoyed them more than I expected.

5. Do you think the book is always better than the movie? If so, why so, and if not, why not?

No, but I can’t think of an example that would settle the matter.

6. What is your favorite piece you’ve written for TMW, and why?

“My Neighbor,” because it was something I didn’t write for myself, but in honor of a friend.

7. What is your least favorite piece you’ve written for TMW, and why?

“George and the Werewolf,” because the subsequent authors in the story ruined the concept! 😉 But the story is now attached to my name and reflective of my writing ability.

My least favorite pieces are my movie reviews because they were cheaply written and of limited use. I don’t read movie reviews, and find that most people don’t – the level of critical discernment isn’t there: I’m not going to read a 600 word essay to decide whether to watch Hot Rod. Instead, I’m going to spend 30 minutes surfing Netflix before choosing Hot Rod because the trailer looks dumb and it’s a 98% match. But I do read stories and come back to them.

8. What are you reading at the moment?

These questions.

Also, Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

9. What’s a book you’ve had on your shelf to read, but haven’t yet?

Worship Matters, by Bob Kauflin

For Emily, in the Spring

A Rumination on Patience.

“If he were coming in the fall,” I dreamed,
“I’d brush the summer by,
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.”

But when summer’s sum was all but spent,
And fall did not you bring,
When winter passed, I thought perhaps
To find you myself in spring.

Yet “no” was all the refrain I heard,
Summer and fall, until you felt lost.
No, not there, and no, not in Winter,
And no, not him, discovered at cost.

I did not know, as I traveled up the year,
That you traveled down, your own course making.
And you did come, just then, that June,
And now time will be ours for the spending.

Inspiration and quoted passages courtesy of Emily Dickinson, “If You Were Coming in the Fall.”

An Interview with Arrietty (#2 in a TMW Interview Series)

The weekend is here and that means it is time for another writer’s interview here on TMW. In case you missed the memo last week -for four consecutive Fridays TMW will be posting a new interview with each of the contributors here on the blog (scroll down a couple posts to see last Friday’s entry). This week’s interview is with Arrietty -ENJOY!!

Interview

  1. When you were younger, what motivated you to write?

My early writings were primarily poetry, and my two main sources of inspiration were my cat and rain.  I would say my general writing motivation was sharing things I thought were interesting that I learned about in books or school.  Poetry was a niche all to itself in my early writing life, and my motivation to write poems was trying to craft something beautiful that expressed what I felt about the people, animals, and nature around me.  And I also loved to make my poems rhyme, no matter how nonsensical it made the result, so rhyming was perhaps another motivation.

  1. In the beginning, what types of things did you enjoy writing the most?

Poetry was my favorite type of writing and in some ways still is, although I also really enjoy reviewing books and writing literary essays.  I wanted to write stories, but they were always a lot harder for me, so I generally found poetry more fun.

  1. Now that you have been writing for several years, how have those initial motivations to put pen to paper matured and changed?

Well, I don’t just write to rhyme anymore.  I have also developed a passion for nonfiction genres, from essays to reviews to personal reflections.  Fundamentally, my motivations to write have remained what they were when I was little: 1) writing to share information I find interesting and 2) trying to make beauty with words.  However, my subject matter and inspirations have broadened and matured.  I would say that a new, more mature motivation is my desire to help people through my writing.  I think that developed a lot because of my work as a university English tutor.  Sharing my knowledge about English and grammar and helping students improve their writing turned out to be a lot of fun.

  1. How have the types of things you write changed as you have grown more adept in your capabilities?

As I’ve grown more confident, I have tried to expand the topics I write about and push my comfort zone by trying different genres.  My work has become more focused on writing advice as I have grown more adept in my writing capabilities.  I have also learned to be more flexible about how I write.  I try to be more informal in some of my writing and create a more personable voice, even though third person is my de facto setting.

  1. Do you feel that worldview makes a difference in the approach an author takes to their writing?

Yes, I think worldview shapes every aspect of life, including an author’s writing.  What we think about and write about, how we think and write, our perceptions of other people and ourselves, and the topics and messages we choose to write about all stem from our view of the world and where our hearts lie.

  • Why do you think this way?

I think worldview influences an author’s approach to writing because worldview affects people at their core, and writing very often comes from the core of who we are—or at least aspects of writing do.  The way we see the world will shape how we portray it for others and our motives for writing in the first place.

  • If yes, how has your worldview shaped your approach to the craft?

As a Christian, I aim to bring glory to the Lord by showing the beauty of creation through my poetry, the image of God in my stories about people, the truth that God defines in my essays and devotional pieces, and the wonderful, God-given intricacy and loveliness of language both through my writing itself and in my essays and reflections about language.  To take a page out of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I seek to “[r]ejoice in the Lord always” and cause others to do so too (4:4).  I also desire to bring to the forefront and cause others to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” for as Paul tells Christians, “[I]f there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

All around us, but especially on blogs and other rabbit holes on the Internet, I see so much negativity, criticism, and plain meanness.  I rarely read comments but once got carried away scrolling through 200+ comments on a blog post because they were such nice, touching, uplifting notes.  It all felt a little too good to be true, and sure enough, by around the 150th comment, everything fell apart and people started giving know-it-all advice and then retaliating and name-calling.  I had to laugh a little because I needed this dose of reality, this sharp but sad reminder that sin can permeate even the “nice” things in life (for some reason, “nice” makes me think of that song from Into the Woods; what does that say about my worldview?).

While I cannot erase the blot of sin and should certainly not try to pretend it doesn’t exist, I think it’s important to fight darkness with beauty, light, and truth.  Helping readers grow as writers, sharing information that might be useful, focusing on the beauty that surrounds us even during challenges and sorrows, and bringing joy or laughter to others are a large part of what drive me to write.

  1. In your opinion, are there personal benefits to practicing writing beyond just exercising your creative outlet (let’s ignore writing for financially motivated reasons)?

Of course!  I think practicing writing has quite a few benefits.  For me personally, exercising my writing skills helps me clarify my thoughts and forces me to learn more about subjects that interest me so I can share more about them.  Writing opens up new horizons and lets us explore where our imaginations can take us, and if we never practiced, we would never go anywhere.  Few people accomplish anything great without practice, and I think that’s true for writing as well.  We need the trial and error, the writing muscle stretches and pain that come with regular practice if we are going to reap the rewards of sharing our ideas effectively or reaching our readers.

  1. You like to write poetry -what would be some advice you have for those interested in learning how to write poems of their own?

First, write about something you know well or that interests you.  Don’t just choose a topic because it seems poetic.  Also, you don’t have to always use a scorched earth strategy.  Some topics deserve to be poeticized countless times, like rain.

Second, do your research, whether it’s observing a bird or discovering what material the Statue of Liberty is made of and the fact that the green stuff that appears when copper oxidizes is called “verdigris.”

Third, focus on rhythm and strong word choices before you try to rhyme.  The former are usually much more important to good poetry than the latter.

  1. What poems would be in your top five of all time, and what do you find makes them particularly impactful/enjoyable/appealing?

That’s a really hard question.  I’m not overfond of superlatives, but I’ll give you five of my top poems (not necessarily the top five).

“I Never Saw a Moor” by Emily Dickinson.  I love Dickinson’s simplicity.  She captures in this tiny poem the essence of imagination and faith and the worlds waiting to be explored within the covers of a book.

“My Kate” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  This may seem like an odd choice.  Probably literary critics would call it old-fashioned or accuse Browning of supporting the Victorian patriarchal ideal for women, but “My Kate” has always touched me with its sincerity.  This tribute reminds me of people I know who do good for others in little, invaluable ways that leave an indelible mark and a hole in life that can’t be filled after they’re gone.  At its core, this poem feels to me like a tribute to ordinary people who change the world in their own important way.

“Daddy Fell into the Pond” by Alfred Noyes.  I’ve loved this poem since the first time I heard it.  It reminds me of my family and tells such a clear, funny story that makes me feel like I’m there.  I also have fond memories of this poem because I once used it in a Father’s Day card and had the best time pasting clipart raindrops all over the cover of the card.  Daddy probably didn’t appreciate the card all that much, but the poem was about a daddy, so I felt that it was appropriate at least in its main character, if not in its tone or general details.

“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy is beautiful.  I love the picture of a tiny bird seeing joy and hope in a world that is dark to man’s eyes.  This thrush and its uncowed cheerfulness remind me of the Carolina wrens I enjoy watching.  God’s creatures are often wiser than we are.  Hardy’s religious beliefs are a matter of debate and he seemed to struggle with Christian ideas throughout his life.  But this poem is a reminder that even broken men can reflect God in their work, if perhaps unintentionally.  Hardy shows how he struggled with darkness and longed for a hope that a bird could see but he could not.  While this poem expresses the author’s doubt and struggles, it also reflects the beautiful Hope that really does exist and should elicit joy from our hearts as well as from little songbirds.

“Opportunity” by Edward R. Sill.  This is a very rousing poem and tells a story that rings with knightly romance.  My favorite part, though, is the theme about not making excuses but using that which is given to fight for a cause, even if winning seems hopeless.  Kind of reminds me of Gandalf’s advice to Frodo in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring: “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.  ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”  When given an opportunity, even if it’s not the gleaming sword or the grand adventure we might have wished for, the real test of who we are is what we do with it.

  1. Who is your favorite contemporary author, and why?

If by contemporary, you mean someone who’s still alive and writing, I think N. D. Wilson is the winner.  His books are fun adventure stories, and I love his quirky writing style and creative twists on fantasy worlds in The 100 Cupboards series and The Ashtown Burials.  I think what makes his crazy stories feel real is that he draws on his own experiences as the initial inspiration for his settings, characters, and adventures.  This especially comes through in Leepike Ridge and Boys of Blur.

Some authors who are close contenders in their own way would be J. B. Cheaney, Brandon Sanderson, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, and Gary D. Schmidt, but none of the authors have quite the consistent pizzazz of Wilson, and I also don’t think they influenced my writing or literary tastes quite as much.  If Lloyd Alexander were still alive, he would rank up there too.

  1. What are you reading currently?

Glad you caught me on a good day!  My reading list varies quite a bit and might give people a weird impression of my taste in books if I were to answer this question on another day.  I’m currently listening to Howards End by E. M. Forster and reading Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber, Building a Storybrand by Donald Miller, and How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

  1. What does your continued pursuit of this craft look like going forward? Do you have any specific long-term goals or aspirations?

I want to write more stories and fiction in general.  One of my goals is to try my hand at new genres, gain more mastery over dialogue and character development, and build larger story arcs.  Mystery, romance, adventure, and fantasy are all genres that I want to explore, but we’ll see how brave I am.  For a more short-term goal, there’s a story sitting in my drawer that is covered in crossed-out sections and handwritten notes and is patiently awaiting an ending.  Another of my goals is to write a long poem.  Perhaps not an epic poem, but something with a larger narrative than my usual ones.  With my poetry and my fiction prose, I feel like I am more of a sprinter and need to train to become a long-distance writer.

Probably my biggest aspiration is to create a story and world that I believe in and feel is so real I can step into it and look around and just write about what I observe happening in it.  I’m discovering that being a writer takes a lot of believing, imagining, and suspending one’s disbelief.  And at least a pinch of something magical.

Toppi

Unique and well-executed art styles always make comic books more interesting to read in my opinion, and as much as everyone claims you should not judge a book by its cover, that is often my first criteria for deciding to read a comic book. While there are a plethora of incredible stylesranging from highly cartoony, to beautiful watercolor, to realistic—, inked linework has always captivated me, and artists such as Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Mark Schultz, and François Schuiten are among my favorites.

While ambling down the rabbit hole that is YouTube a few months ago, I came across a video by Earl Grey reviewing a list of his favorite Euro graphic novels (he is from Germany)and among the list was “Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights” by the Italian artist Toppi. The illustrations were entirely in black and white, with intricate texturing and hatching, all within pages that contained some of the most unique panel compositions I had seen in a comic format. As soon as the video was over I knew a trip to Amazon.com was in orderand a short while later a hardcover copy of The Collected TOPPI – Volume One: The Enchanted World was at my doorstep.

Toppi began his career in the illustration world during the 1960s and has since become well known in comic circles and influenced many other artists. The refinement of his artistic execution and composition definitely reflects his interest in illustration, and makes for a dramatic reading experience:

My specific book is a collection of short fantasy works Toppi created. The stories themselves read much like very dark fairytales, and while interesting in their own right, are overshadowed by the artist’s incredibly unique style. With this collection, the reader can simply look at the artwork and appreciate the whole book on that merit alone, without reading a single bit of text. There are many examples of his work on the internet, and some of his publications have made it to the U.S.albeit in limited quantities. But his style is unique throughout:

Comics from the European continent have become an area of interest for me as of latetitles such as Blacksad, When the Wind Blows, Samaris, and Matteo to name a fewall done with different styles and subject-matter. Toppi’s work is unique unto itself, and one of the few that can stand on its visual artistry alone. If you love well-inked drawings, and appreciate unique but effective composition, I would recommend looking into Sergio Toppi.

References

Earl Grey: https://youtu.be/yi6e4TQ7jC8?t=61

(all images are from the below)

Toppi, S., Melloul, J., Kennedy, M., & Sienkiewicz, B. (2019). The collected Toppi. Volume one, The enchanted world. Lion Forge.

An Interview with Catdust (#1 in a TMW Interview Series)

Normally, we TMWers are all about the solitary writing life.  But we’ve decided to try something new and collaborate a little.  Every Friday this month, we’re planning to share a series of special posts where we take turns interviewing each other about our literary and writing lives.  This week, Arrietty is interviewing Catdust.  (Aka, Catdust is this week’s victim, sacrifice, whatchamacallit…and I didn’t know how to spell that until just now.)

As I suspect is usual in these cases, I posed questions that I wanted answers to, but that I know I would struggle to answer if asked.  I hope you enjoy Catdust’s insightful responses.

The Interview

A: What’s your writing muse?  What animal, setting, object, or person inspires you in your writing or often becomes part of your work?
C: Most often, my muse(s) are the people I’m surrounded by, and occasionally events I attend. I’ve written pieces inspired by my family members (“‘’Coon”), college roommates (“How to Get the Guinea Pig”), middle schoolers I was teaching (“Required Statements”), and boyfriend (“Lilies in Water”).

Of course, though “The Wedding Ballad of Lottie and Paul” was based on a real wedding I attended, the evening didn’t end quite so dramatically.

A: What has been the hardest genre to write in?
C: Oddly enough, I’m going to go with “fiction,” broadly. I write a lot of it, but it never ceases being hard. Making dialogue sound natural, and trying to actually write the nuances of tone and gesture is can be a very frustrating endeavor.

Also, to be honest, I have little patience for writing descriptions of things, or places, or appearances – a rather essential aspect of most writing, I know. I’m an admirer of short, powerful descriptions, and live in holy fear of writing unnecessarily flowery or detailed passages, and have yet to master the happy medium to my own satisfaction.

A: If you could have a writing superpower, what would it be?
C: I would love the ability to recreate my witty and dramatic phrasing exactly as it sounded in my head when I was taking a shower (or otherwise unable to write). All inspiration seems to flee as soon as I touch a keyboard.

A: Who were three of your favorite childhood authors?  Why?

  • Gail Carson Levine. She wrote children’s and young adult fantasy novels. While I of course adored the magical settings, fairy tale trappings, and romance, I also appreciated the strong female leads that appeared in most of her books. I use that phrase, “strong female lead,” very unironically. It was their personalities that made them strong – their cleverness, their kindness, their bravery, their “moral fiber,” to use an old-fashioned expression. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, I consider her novel Ella Enchanted to be, well, one of the “most bestest” books ever.
  • E.L. Konigsburg. While much of my reading as a young lass rarely varied from the fantasy genre, E.L. Konigsburg could get me to stray off that beaten path. She didn’t write fantasy; she wrote realism, but her novels were fantastic studies of character. The Second Mrs. Giaconda might be the best of them.
  • Lloyd Alexander. Though most known (in some circles) for his Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander was quite a prolific author, writing several other series and numerous standalone novels. They can be light, humorous works, or deeper, darker stories, but each one has sparkling characters, unique settings, and involving plots. His Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen) is supremely underrated, in my opinion.

A: Have you ever read a book based on its cover?  If so, did the book live up to your expectations, or did you become a firm believer in the proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover?”
C: Sometime in my early childhood, I remember being chauffeured around the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, and seeing a cover which intrigued me. It was green, and brown, and gold, and there was a girl holding a sword and facing a grisly dragon – I was looking at the c. 2000 paperback edition of The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. Right up my alley, or at least, it would be several years later once I requested it from the library. It’s now one of my favorite books.

I like to think I’m a pretty good, if harsh, judge of covers – at least, I can’t think of any time my harsh judgement has steered me too terribly astray. Now, as for all the books that I might have liked, but misjudged, well, let’s not talk about those.

A: What are three pieces of advice you would give other writers based on your personal experience?
C: Don’t get too attached to your writing. Sure, sometimes you write something that you know is good, and other people think so too. But much of the time, people will tell you how much they loved some piddly piece of writing you did, while heaping no praise on that other work you thought was much better.

Don’t wait until the last few hours before a deadline to write something. You may occasionally produce something truly inspired, but more often than not the result will be mediocre and you will not be happy. Please note that I rarely listen to this advice.

Do embrace the potential of “word vomit.” Sometimes just writing something, anything, however horrible it is, is all you need to get those creative gears turning.

A: Is there a writing genre you’ve never tried but always wanted to?
C: Mystery. I admire a well-crafted, suspenseful story, but whenever I’ve brushed the edges of this genre, I’m never satisfied with the outcome – my prose sounds dumb and my clues too obvious. Thus, I’ve avoided writing a full-blown mystery or detective story.

I have a similar problem with romance and horror, but slightly less of a desire to write either.

A: What intimidates you when you’re preparing to write a new project?
C: Having to write “the middle.”

Let me explain: I know how I want the story to start, approximately, and I know how I want the story to end. To be honest, I often have the ending fully-formed. But, in order to get from the beginning to the ending, and to make that ending meaningful, you must slog through the middle, the details of how you got from Point A to Point B…and there’s all that description you have to write. It just takes such a long time to physically write…

…I’m not sure I would have lasted as a writer prior to the invention of the keyboard.

A: What are five books that have really influenced you as a writer?
C: “Influenced” may be too flattering of a word; it may be more like “inspired,” and may not be a good thing. Please also note that this is a slightly different list than “Books that have Influenced Me as a Person,” although there is some overlap.

  • 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. The first novel in a trilogy is fantastical in its plot, economical in its story beats, and walks that line of quirky yet realistic dialogue.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Absolutely some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read, and not because it’s super flowery or anything like that. Beagle’s command of strategically selected and placed adjectives results in exactly the sort of descriptions I wish I could write, and creates a story that, though other times amusing and other times strange, is ultimately heartrending.
  • Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. This one takes (even more) explaining. Each of Robin McKinley’s books has influenced my writing in some way. I can point to each one and say, oh, this one taught me this, and that one taught me that. And Spindle’s End is actually not my favorite of her books, by a long shot. However, McKinley does always have a tendency to write prose with a lot of parentheticals, meandering sidebars, punctuation-on-top-of-punctuations-and-hyphens-too, and seemingly random tangents for the sake of tangents. It’s less pronounced in her earlier works, but she is in rare form in this novel, which taught me that you can have that many parentheses and that much wandering prose and still be a popular, published author. Thus, I’m including this particular novel on the list to make the point that not all influences are good influences.
  • Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris. I think this might have been one of the first real novels I ever read. It’s a fairytale, a comedy, a romance, and introduced me to the idea of really messing with those ol’ fairytale tropes.
  • Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. This is a semi-autobiographical novel, not a fantasy story, and I draw upon its sense of comedy every time I write any humorous story about my own life or family.

A: If you could assume the writing voice of an author and write a sequel to a book or series, what book/series would you choose, and why?
C: I’m going to go with my gut reaction on this one, even though I know better. I would assume the writing voice of Dodie Smith and write a sequel to I Capture the Castle. It’s a nearly perfect book, structurally, and really needs no sequel. “It really does end precisely as it should,” I tell myself. And yet…the ending made me so sad. Not because anyone died or some overwrought drama occurred; it’s actually a more light, humorous book. But the truly human emotions present in that bitter, bittersweet final chapter make me want something more every time, even if it is against my better judgement.


Stay tuned for next week’s interview!

Header image: Created by Arrietty

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Kaylen followed Tom down two flights of stairs to an opening that emerged into an enormous space—a pub in a basement! The pub did not look like an earth-pub at all. It had the appearance of a bowling alley out of an 80’s film, the lanes set just beyond a series of brick arches that gave the pub a grand appearance, despite the lack of natural lighting.

A man wearing a crumpled baseball cap sat on a stool by the door, stacks of green prize tickets, strung together, in his hands—the sort of tickets that Kaylen remembered redeeming at Adventure Zone for turns on the space commander arcade game, as a child. Tom fumbled around in his pockets for a moment and then withdrew a string of his own tickets. “Evening, Chaucer,” Tom said. “Is my usual spot available?”

Chaucer took the tickets, examined them, and then tore off two of them and handed the rest back to Tom. He shook his head. “Not your normal spot. Darius is here, said you’d be arriving soon. Got you a booth –second one from the wall.” Chaucer waved towards the far wall.

“Oh,” said Tom, surprised. He motioned to Kaylen to follow. “Darius. He’s a friend of mine—actually, and also something of a renaissance man.”

The booth’s red leather seats had a dull luster to them, and the waxed, wooden table already had several rings of water on it next to an empty glass, indicating that Darius had been there for awhile, or else had been drinking quickly. With a mug of fizzy drink raised in one hand, he raised it and took a sip as Tom appeared. “Tom!” he said, with a note of melancholy in his voice. “The man I need to see right now. You’ve always seemed to understand me.” Darius stopped as he noticed Kaylen for the first time. “Who might this be?” he said, with a sly grin at Tom. “Brought a lady-friend to our chat, eh? You are a fox, my man.”

“Passenger,” said Tom, brushing off whatever awkwardness might be occasioned by this comment and sitting down opposite Darius. “This is Kaylen. Kaylen, Darius is one of the main designers of the self-driving taxis we were observing earlier.” Kaylen sat down.

“Taxis?” said Darius. “More like self-driving catastrophes.” He gave Kaylen, who wore a puzzled expression, a sideways glance. “You’re new here. You have a fresh pair of eyes. Tell me—what do you think about them? I just need some honest feedback.” He looked at Kaylen with an intensity that startled her. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Its…an interesting idea,” she stammered.

“An interesting idea!” Darius repeated, spreading his arms wide. “But that’s not what you really think—you think it’s annoyed how slowly they work, and how silly and impractical they look next to real taxis!”

“Well,” said Kaylen, trying to think of something hopeful, “Yeah. But this is just the first iteration, right? The technology will improve right and get better?”

Darius nodded, as if expecting this answer. He looked down at the sparkly foam sitting at the top of his drink. “You’re an idealist, I can tell. That’s what I thought, too, when I got here—let’s improve the place! The point of purgatory, however, I’m sure Tom here has already filled you in on.”

“Something about…purification,” said Kaylen, looking at Tom. Tom nodded in agreement.

“That’s more or less it,” said Darius. “But what does purification mean? How do you teach someone patience? You give them something that causes normal people impatience, so they can practice patience. So, I have a theory about purgatory–”

“Just a theory!” broke in Tom. “Don’t think of this as gospel.”

Darius paused, and then nodded. “Yes, it is a theory, but it’s this: purgatory is designed to be irritating: it has long lines, annoying waits, uncomfortable weather year-round, and…” Darius paused and looked down at his drink again before continuing, “gin fizzes that never quite rise to the level of a buzz until you’ve drunk two dozen of them and are about to burst.”

“Anyway,” continued Darius. “I thought to myself, I can improve this place! I’ll engineer a self-driving car that coordinates with all the other self-driving cars in order to optimize traffic, so that taxi drivers can simply relax and the traffic will be so smooth that we won’t see this state of perpetual gridlock. That was my dream.” A wistful look came into Darius’s eyes. “That I could leave my mark on purgatory so that one day travelers would pass through. But you know what? For each annoyance that inventors have conquered over the centuries, dozens of new annoyances have sprung up to take their place. Our latest iteration was supposed to achieve level 12 self-driving automation—the highest level—but instead we have simply engineered a quivering WRECK of a machine, so that now…I need another gin fizz!” This last part of his monologue Darius directed at a passing waiter.

The conversation lulled. Little did Kaylen realize during this moment that less than 15 minutes later, she would be on the run from Tom, through this world she had just arrived in, feeling more alive than she had in all her life, despite the fact that she was now dead.

“I’d like a gin fizz, too!” said Kaylen.

To be continued…