Summer Travel Interviews and Stories: Kurt Vonnegut Reads from Slaughterhouse-Five

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”  This has to be one of the most famous first sentences in contemporary literature.  It’s the first sentence of Chapter 2 of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-FiveAnd it’s here, as part of my summer travel series, where we begin with Kurt Vonnegut reading from his novel.


Realistic Young Adult Fiction Read by Adults

What is young adult fiction?  Is it all fantasy and romance?  How fast is it selling?  Who’s buying it?

CBS news reported last December, “With sales up 24 percent, the fastest-growing market for publishers are young adult books. Long given less attention by big publishers, these books are suddenly bigger than ever, as young adult literature has become more popular among adults.”

You might be thinking of Harry Potter or Twilight, but realistic fiction for young adults has also grown in popularity, and this has caused a rash of articles questioning the merits of adults reading YA (“Against YA,” Slate), the differences in the YA and adult fiction, the best examples of realistic YA writing, and if YA dives as deep as adult fiction (“Of Course YA Books Can Be Complex” and “The Adult Lessons of YA Fiction,” both from The Atlantic).

Summer Travel Interviews and Stories: Cynthia Ozick Reads “The Shawl”

This is the third in a series of travel interviews and stories by American masters I will post this summer.  If you’re traveling, and you’d like to add a little depth to your highway-skyway miles, you might be interested in listening.  This time, Cynthia Ozick reads her classic short story, “The Shawl.”  Poignant and hypnotic, this story–not for the timid–is a masterpiece in the use poetic, metaphorical language.


What It Feel’s Like . . . Fascinating True Stories from Esquire

“I liked working night shifts, because whenever they were awake, I wanted to apologize to them. When they were sleeping, I didn’t have to worry about that. I could just walk up and down the blocks all night long.

There was usually one detainee who would lead the call to prayer at five in the morning. That person was in the very last cell. The detainees, they sang beautifully. It was so eerie to hear, because it was such a beautiful song, and to hear forty-eight detainees just get up in the morning and, in unison, sing this gorgeous song that I could never understand . . .”

This is from the article “What It Feels Like…to Be a Prisoner Guard at Guantanamo Bay,” published by Esquire magazine.  The story, told by former guard Christopher Arendt, tells what it was like to actually guard the Guantanamo inmates.

What It Feels Like…” is an article series archived at Esquire.  Each essay gives an inside take on the most unusual experiences: what it feels like to be in a plane crash, to have multiple personalities, to be a drug mule, to live at the South Pole, to row across the Atlantic, to chop a man’s head off, to stay awake for eleven days, to have Jesus enter your heart.

Esquire’s fiction heyday is long gone, but these stories are worth the time.





Summer Travel Interviews and Stories: Jennifer Egan

This is the second in a series of travel interviews and stories by American masters I will post this summer.  If you’re traveling, and you’d like to add a little entertainment and insight to your highway-skyway miles, you might be interested in listening.  Up today, Jennifer Egan reads from A Visit from The Good Squad and talks about how she wrote it.



Cheever, Cummings, and the Biographer’s Quest

John Cheever said of E. E. Cummings:

I was in doubt that I could make something of myself as a writer until I met two people who were very important to me: one was Gaston Lachaise and the other was E. E. Cummings. Cummings I loved, and I love his memory. He did a wonderful imitation of a wood-burning locomotive going from Tiflis to Minsk. He could hear a pin falling in soft dirt at the distance of three miles. Do you remember the story of Cummings’s death? It was September, hot, and Cummings was cutting kindling in the back of his house in New Hampshire. He was sixty-six or -seven or something like that. Marion, his wife, leaned out the window and asked, “Cummings, isn’t it frightfully hot to be chopping wood?” He said, “I’m going to stop now, but I’m going to sharpen the ax before I put it up, dear.” Those were the last words he spoke.

Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter, met the poet when she was fourteen years old and he came to her high school for a reading. Afterwards, she and her father drove him back to Manhattan. The story of this visit starts Susan Cheever’s new biography, E. E. Cummings: A Life.

I learned of her book when I came across the interesting article, “How to Solve an 88-Year-Old Literary Mystery,” written by Cheever, in The New York Times. In 1926, Cummings’ father died in a horrible accident: his new Franklin sedan was split in half by a steam-powered locomotive. The accident “catapulted Cummings into an adulthood that included his disastrous second marriage and the crisis of confidence that led him into therapy. It also inspired one of the finest dirges ever written, a glorious requiem mass of words, the poem that begins: “My father moved through dooms of love/through sames of am through haves of give/singing each morning out of each night.”

Susan Cheever’s article describes her quest to find out how the accident happened.  “I read everything written about the accident, yet it continued to baffle me. Why didn’t Rebecca [Cummings' mother and driver of the car] stop at the railroad crossing? How could she have missed the belching, screeching, clanking steam locomotive bearing down on her?”  Answering such questions are part of a biographer’s job description, but in this article, Cheever takes us inside into her personal quest to find the answer.  Find the full article here, and the poem alluded to above below:

my father moved through dooms of love
by e.e. cummings

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if(so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who,his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly(over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is

proudly and(by octobering flame
beckoned)as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine,passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear,to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit,all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all









Shifting the Paradigm of Not Knowing: Writer’s Sweet Spot

The blank white page have your brain constipated? Maybe it’s a good thing. Not knowing where your writing is going can be frustrating, scary, and debilitating, but what if it wasn’t? What if the uneasiness you feel when trying to write something that matters to you is precisely what’s needed to create something of imaginative value?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychology researcher who has devoted much study on creativity, points out, in the clip above, that in his research, the most successful creative artists don’t start with preconceived ideas.  Trying to understand the problem they are confronted with is what makes them successful.

This is echoed by Jennifer Egan, when, according to Rachel Hodin, she “described the horrifying moment when you are nearing the end of your novel, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to your characters next”:

“How can I not know what’s going to happen when it’s coming up so soon? I am their creator, after all!” But then, she explains, it’s this exact feeling of uncertainty that a writer needs to succeed. Because any of the possible paths you might have in mind for your character are too obvious and should not be employed.

Tim O’Brien notes how the not knowing frustrates a lot of writers, but for him, it’s what propels him forward:

The act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences. And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence. For example, the sentence, “This is true,” began one of my stories. I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea. Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: “A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley.” Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it? Does he really mean it’s true? And to what degree does this character think it’s true? And how can anybody say “this is true” without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on? So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.

What I hear: Don’t worry if you feel uneasy.  Relish it.  Be patient.  Give it time.  Expect something good to follow.