The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Remembering ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, a high school reading assignment, was my first exposure to a graphically told war novel. Men died. The nameless battles didn’t matter. The day-to-day stasis was filled with the terror of an unexpected enemy charge or artillery attack. And, there not only was no victory but no respite after the war when the men came home and discovered they weren’t capable of returning to civilian life.

As Remarque, who was a veteran of the war, said in the introduction,  “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”

Current Amazon Description: Paul Baumer enlisted with his classmates in the German army of World War I. Youthful, enthusiastic, they become soldiers. But despite what they have learned, they break into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. And as horrible war plods on year after year, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principles of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other–if only he can come out of the war alive. “The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.” – The New York Times Book Review

From the Book: “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”

I believe such books as Hiroshima, Johnny Got His Gun, and All Quiet on the Western Front should be required reading in high school and college literature classes. Students should be assigned the feature film Saving Private Ryan to understand the absurdity of war and especially the “Pickett’s Charge” style assault of the allies at the Battle of Normandy that was (in spite of the casualties) considered a success.

I suspect few students read and discuss such books now. That leads to more people ignorant of war’s realities and, on this day, more deaths to remember. But, we have sanitized our classrooms, removing anything that might offend, scare, sicken, or bother our young people. All Quiet on the Western Front sickened me, brought nightmares, and made me a life-long pacifist. At the time, I hated the son of a bitch who assigned it to my class. Most people couldn’t finish it, glimpsing its plot through Cliff’s Notes, Monarch Notes, and stolen copies of exams. Now I think that son of a bitch did me a favor. I’m stronger for having a war story shoved in my face.

As the years go by, the military/civilian disconnect, as some have described the reason few people understand or celebrate Memorial Day properly, has grown because a smaller and smaller percentage of the population experiences military service. So, we have little or no association with the horrors of war, with losing friends and loved ones, or–if we serve and see battle–returning to civilian life less broken than the characters in Remarque’s novel.

I cannot claim this is all bad, but I think that those who serve our country in the military deserve more assistance and respect when they return–and a holiday more associated with honor and reverence and remembrance than as a day for shopping, barbecues, and cavorting at the beach.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the anti-war novel At Sea.

 

Even our best teachers can give us bad writing advice

“Here’s a writing craft tool that you can remove from your toolbox and throw away: description. It’s the stuff that most readers skim. Even when deftly done using the five senses it’s a lead weight. It isn’t needed anymore.” ― Donald Maass

I have one of Donald Maass’ writing books on my shelf. It has some of the best writing advice I’ve read. But, if he’s going to suggest we need no description, he should have stopped and imagined a few things before saying something so flippant:

  • Characters without any physical characteristics–height, weight, eye color, hair color, clothing styles–because the reader learns that through description.
  • Characters who live in unknown houses and who drive unknown cars. Yes, description tells us such things.
  • Monsters we have to take on faith because without description we don’t know whether or not they’re really scary and capable of hurting the protagonist. Same thing can be said about the bad guys and bad women.
  • Imagine being blind to everything in the story. Imagine the characters also being blind because without description, they can’t even imagine what the people they’re talking to (or about) look like.

We seldom need lengthy descriptions like those we found in the old novels many of us had to read in high school. Maybe you read a few of them too, books in which the author started describing a palace and its grounds on page 17 and was still describing it on page 27. I’m glad most books don’t carry on about the looks of things with several thousand words at a time.

Maass’ advice contrasts sharply with those who advocate so-called “thick description,” description that’s multilayered and tells us more than one thing about a person, place or thing.

Maass also suggests that good fiction should be entertaining and about something that matters. I agree. The depth of stories that matter can come from a lot of sources, including the theme, plot, characters, and dialogue. Frankly, I think if a clever author weeded out every single descriptive word and phrase in an otherwise masterpiece of a novel, Maass wouldn’t like the result. Few people would.

Malcolm

 

Does writing bring catharsis?

I was influenced years ago by Richard M. Eastman’s Writing as a Discovery of Outlook. Eastman believed that writers don’t know precisely how they feel about a subject until they’ve written about it. This idea came to mind as I read “Maggie Nelson: ‘There is no catharsis… the stories we tell ourselves don’t heal us’” in The Observer.

Nelson (“The Argonauts” and “The Red Parts) wrote about the trial and conviction of Gary Earl Leiterman for the 1969 murder of her aunt, Jane Mixer. In The Observer article, she said of The Red Parts,  “I felt horrible after I finished it, and it was difficult to read from [publicly]. The book is really a long critique of catharsis. But the irony is that my catharsis was writing down that there is no catharsis. The stories we tell ourselves don’t heal us, but I also think that if I hadn’t written it, I wouldn’t have processed the experience: writers tend to be people who process things by writing. The problems of the book don’t weigh on me so heavily now.”

Writers and others are often encourage to create journals, essays, articles and even fiction as a way of “freeing themselves” from the angst of personal tragedy. I’ve never found these solutions to be successful. But as Eastman and Nelson suggest, I understand the situations much better after having written about them. No, there wasn’t a monumental epiphany or catharsis even though I felt after writing that I understood myself and the situations better.

Perhaps writing serves as a more complete therapy for others. I’ve heard that it does, though I’ve yet to meet another writer who was, so to speak, “going nuts,” wrote about the causes of his or her discord, and ended up cured. Perhaps that’s too flip. Maybe we simply get a little better–and that’s good enough.

What about you? Do you keep a diary and does it help you over the rough spots? Or, perhaps you found that fiction works better or, perhaps, becoming involved in a nonprofit dedicated to a problem you faced or encountered that includes your writing essays and grant applications.

As for me, the writing helps even though it hasn’t been a cure.

Malcolm

Buy It or Review It (Or Preferably Both)

If you are a writer, ask to be paid for your work. If you are asking a writer to appear, pay them. If you read a book, pay for it. If you accept a free book, post a review. Anything else is eroding the careers of writers everywhere.

via Buy It or Review It (Or Preferably Both) | FundsforWriters

This post, from several days ago, is in many ways about writers helping each other and notes that many people–including those on writers’ Facebook friends lists or who follow their blogs–sign on to accept a free copy of a book but then never read it, much less review it.

As Hope Clark mentions, it’s bad enough when a reader requests an ARC (advance readers copy) and then never posts a review; it’s worse when another author does it.  An Amazon-style review can be posted in a few minutes and it can make a big difference between the success or failure of a mid-list or an emerging author’s work.

We need to help each other and keep our promises.

Malcolm

 

Book Bits: Drag Queen Story Hour, Smoky Zeidel, Mass Market Paperbacks, Jean Stein

Here are a few items that forced themselves into my consciousness while I was trying to use up the day (after grocery shopping) reading an ancient novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Mother Night). It’s a trade paperback from the days when trade paperbacks were the best way of buying inexpensive books as long as you didn’t have to have them as soon as the hardback edition was released. Today, the industry doesn’t seem to know whether to keep using this format or not (Item 3).

  1. Feature: ‘Drag Queen Story Hour Puts the Rainbow in Reading,’ by Una Lamarche – “This is Drag Queen Story Hour. The brainchild of the writer Michelle Tea and Radar Productions, it is exactly what it sounds like: drag queens reading stories to children. It began in San Francisco in December 2015 and spread to Brooklyn last summer, thanks to social media attention.” The New York Times
  2. New Title: ‘Shadowed Places: A Collection of Short Stories’ by Smoky Zeidel (Thomas-Jacob Publishing May 21) – “Breathe: how many people can pinpoint the precise time their marriage died; can repeat verbatim the words that sent the marriage plunging into the grave? Goodbye, Emily Dickinson: Sometimes the delusion is what helps us get through the reality. Lesser Offenses: Stepmothers had disappeared before, for lesser offenses. It was Carlotta’s time to go.” Amazon
  3. Viewpoint: ‘Is Mass Market Dying, Or Just Evolving—Again?’ by Rachel Deahl – “In steady decline for years, the format is either enduring an incredibly slow death or has begun to right itself in the market.” Publishers Weekly
  4. Quotation: “Owning this store was never a dream or fantasy of ours because it never would have occurred to us. It turns out it’s a lot of people’s fantasy, though they don’t realize how hard it is. It’s been this full immersion into this world that we barely knew, but now represents really everything we care about.” – Lissa Muscatine, co-owner with Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C. Shelf Awareness
  5. Benton

    Interview: Janet Benton with Lauren Bufferd, ‘A tale of motherhood set on the brink of modernity’ – I’ve written fiction since I was very young, and I have an MFA in fiction writing. But Lilli de Jong is the first novel I’ve finished. The voice I heard from the beginning was that of Lilli telling her story. I didn’t choose how to explore the story; it never struck me as a subject area, but rather as an embodied and urgent tale.” Book Page

  6. Obituary: ‘That Voice, Those Parties: Remembering Jean Stein,’ by Guy Trebay and Jacob Bernstein – “To conjure Jean Stein you must first imagine the voice — a soft and breathy near-whisper, by turns merry or full of steel. It was a voice suited to late-night telephone conversations and dinners at the corner tables of now-forgotten Manhattan restaurants.” New York Times
  7. Feature: ‘Body of work: Women writers on disordered eating, writing the body and the book launch diet’ by Joanna Novak – “Before my book came out I thought about dieting, despite my history. Was I being shallow? Was I alone?” Salon

Book Bits is compiled randomly by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of magical realism, paranormal, and contemporary fantasy short stories and novels.

Are writers outsiders?

“Writers are outsiders. Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later.” – Dani Shapiro

I’m not sure the answer is a simple yes or no.

In contrast to Dani Shapiro’s statement, Joe Bunting in Are the Best Writers Insiders or Outsiders? says, “Perhaps the insider/outsider question is a false dichotomy. If Cormac McCarthy can write masterpieces in his solitude and Salman Rushdie write them while dating supermodels and going to international parties, then maybe it’s not about being in or out. Perhaps the secret is to never stop being you, whether or not you’re inside or outside.”

Maybe Joe Bunting’s “you” can change personas and step into the mix and be a part of it when necessary or watch from the sidelines and observe when necessary. Or, maybe it comes down to whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, facile or clumsy in social situations, or easily moves between a huge number of friends or feels more comfortable spending most of his or her time with a small group.

We’re always observing, I think. To some extent, that puts us somewhat outside. We do store away clues, as Shapiro says. In Bunting’s post, it’s not surprising to read that J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are among the outsiders–far outside, as it turns out. Or, that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Mark Twain were considered insiders.

When I read an author’s novel, I don’t know if s/he’s an insider or an outsider in any social group, town or career. I might leap to conclusions if I thought about it and consider those who write literary fiction to be outsiders and those who write romances and thrillers to be insiders. But, I might be wrong.

Perhaps insider vs. outsider doesn’t matter. Maybe the true consideration is: who do you need to be to write what you want to write?

Personally, I need quiet. I don’t want every week to be filled with dinners, barbecues, parties, movies, and day trips. That’s what works for me. Maybe you need a lot of activity, friends trooping through the house 24/7 and a full dance card, so to speak. If it works, what more could one want?

The late William Trevor (“Love and Summer”), a prolific Irish writer believed that “writers were outsiders, that they had no place in society because society was what they were watching.” I can understand the feeling even though I’m not convinced all writers feel this way.

If you’re a writer, how do you feel about this? (Yes, I know, maybe the insider/outsider discussion is about as meaningful about the old debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.) But I’m curious. Can you “make the scene” and still write about it or do you have to stand amongst the wallflowers and watch it before you can write about it?

Malcolm

 

Why I wrote ‘Conjure Woman’s Cat’

Because the world around me when I was growing up included this kind of warped nonsense:

Florida Memory Photo

Any questions?

–Malcolm

Conjure Woman’s Cat and its sequel Eulalie and Washerwoman are available at multiple online sites as well as at your book store via their Ingram Catalogue.

Friday is the day to buy this unique Kindle novel

On Sale for 99₵

Eulalie and Washerwoman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DescriptionTorreya, a small 1950s Florida Panhandle town, is losing its men. They disappear on nights with no moon and no witnesses. Foreclosure signs appear in their yards the following day while thugs associated with the Klan take everything of value from inside treasured homes that will soon be torn down. The police won’t investigate, and the church keeps its distance from all social and political discord. Conjure woman Eulalie Jenkins, her shamanistic cat, Lena, and neighbor Willie Tate discover that the new “whites only” policy at the once friendly mercantile and the creation of a plantation-style subdivision are linked to corrupt city fathers, the disappearing men, rigged numbers gambling, and a powerful hoodoo man named Washerwoman.

Review: “Despite the foundation of blatant inequality and disregard for human life this story centers around, Campbell has managed to infuse hope and humor into the reality of life. Authentic dialect spoken by the characters adds an additional layer of reality to the piece, embedding the reader directly into the danger and the action. This is without a doubt a unique and necessary blend of history and magic, delivered through a unique style of storytelling that will not disappoint.” – Elspeth Senz in Book Expo Review, June 2017, Issue #3.

Enjoy the novel!

–Malcolm

Writing Craft: Staying out of the reader’s way

The intention of the writer of a novel is to guide readers into a dream-like state where the story comes alive in their minds, and they forget about everything else. Including – especially including – the fact that there is an author manipulating their emotions. Every time any reader is for any reason made aware of the presence of an author writing the story, that reader is tossed for a brief moment out of the emotional bond you have been working so hard to create.

via Make Your Writing Invisible – Indies Unlimited

The best authors and writing teachers have been saying this for years. Gordon Long approaches the idea a little differently in the way he leads into the paragraph I’ve quoted here. One way to allow his ideas to sink in, is to look for his examples of what you shouldn’t do while your reading novels in your favorite genre. Once you start noticing the flaws, it will be hard to “un-see” them. That may impact your pleasure reading for a while. But not forever because you’ll get used to putting up with authors’ mistakes and getting past them–unless they’re your own which aren’t too broke to fix.

As usual, helpful advice from Indies Unlimited.

–Malcolm

 

Last minute tips for a happy Mother’s Day

These tips are offered as curiosities only and with no express or implied warranty of any kind.

  1. For heaven’s sake, don’t force mama so slave over a hot stove all day preparing her Mother’s Day dinner, especially if you forced her to go duck hunting, deer hunting, or fishing to get the prime ingredient. If she caught or shot something, clean it while she takes a bath and changes into suitable church-going clothes. Better yet, take her out to the nearest Outback Steakhouse. If mama’s petite, get her a Victoria’s Filet Mignon. If she’s hefty, get her the Slow-Roasted Prime Rib.
  2. Breakfast in bed is a nice touch as long as you make sure mama’s “decent” before you open the bedroom door. If your family doesn’t have a “safe word” that means “okay to come in the bedroom,” warn mama the night before that you’re bringing her breakfast. If you don’t know how to make a Denver omelet with a rasher of bacon, at least heat up some grits. (These come in little packets that are stirred into boiling water. Hard to mess this up.) Put a nice snapdragon or some other appropriate flower in a bud vase and don’t over-boil the coffee.
  3. Take mama to some place special during the afternoon. Treats my mama liked included professional wrestling, paintball games, and playing pool at the corner bar. Tip: all mamas are not alike. Success may vary.
  4. Write mama a poem. Limericks are ill-advised. Haiku are so short, she’ll think she’s only worth a few words. Sonnets are nice. If you can’t write your own or hire your state’s poet laureate to create one for your mama, steal something from a famous poet she’s never heard of.
  5. As evening comes and you and mama are sitting out on the front porch slamming down shots of vodka, sing mama a song. (As the popular Facebook meme reminds us, you’re the reason she drinks.) So, easy does it. Avoid songs like “Mama Don’t Allow,” “Roll Me Over in the Clover” and “Bang Bang Lulu.” Assuming you know how old your mama is, pick as song that would have been popular when she was a teenager. Do this yourself rather than lip-syncing to an old 78 rpm record.
  6. Apologize in advance (unless she’s already there) for the fact that you and your spouse plan to put her in a home when she becomes unable to live alone because you’re not a good enough son or daughter to care for her properly even if you wanted to. Explain that you and/or your spouse were so traumatized during childhood, that the last thing you need now is to re-create that by having mama come back to sit in your house and raise her eyebrows every time you stay up late and watch filthy movies.
  7. Get mama a gift she’s always wanted like a pump-action shotgun. If you guess wrong, I’m sure she’ll let you borrow the weapon. (My mama was more than happy to let me borrow the baseball gloves I got her for Mother’s Day when I was a kid.)
  8. If your mama is obese, give her a gift certificate to fat farm. (Don’t use the words “fat farm.”) If she gets pissed off, tell her you’re doing this for her health and want her to live long and prosper even though her later years might be spent in a home. You might also remind her that the reverend banned her from church after the pew collapsed when she sat down after singing “Amazing Grace.”
  9. Confess to your mama that you haven’t gotten syphilis from hookers as often as she thinks because (basically) you were trying to be a good son or daughter, but these things happen.
  10. Swear on a stack of Bibles (if necessary) to convince mama that her hair, dress, shoes, and makeup are absolutely perfect and that you want her to stop listening to those people from the other side of the tracks who think she looks like an old hag. Plus, even if she does, you, love her anyway.

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