ArtThis is the title story from Art's Place: Stories & Diversions, which will be published, Sept. 10, 2020. What happens when customers in a working class bar discuss art and literature instead of football and auto racing. Read More
The book will be out in September. Here's another story from the collection.
The Musicians' Corner in Purgatory
Musicians consigned to Purgatory like to sit around and talk shop. Many of them still gather in the mists after centuries of residency to reminisce and expand their musical horizons.
The notion of the musicians' corner was fostered by Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BC), who having spent more than a millennium discoursing with Sophocles, Dante Alighieri, and other luminaries, believes artists, authors, and musicians are best situated amongst themselves, rather than with the population at large.
"Artistic icons," Virgil says, an aide translating his Latin, "spent earthly lifetimes upsetting all manner of apple carts. Ordinary gentry won't accommodate ebullitions of artistic temperament. Thus, it is only appropriate they endure one another in this place before their final ascents, or descents. Musicians—some of whom composed or performed sacred music as corporeal beings—have had difficulty adjusting here. Elvis, for instance. The lad is upset, claiming that his earth-bound information from fellow Pentecostals, denied the existence of this dwelling, except as a Papist-generated superstition. He still rues the fact that his living acquaintances will never know to offer prayers to move him on and upward. But," said Virgil, almost smiling, "that's the way the shewbread crumbles."
Then Virgil sighed and said he was being summoned to the writers' station, where a dispute between Existentialists, led by Jean Paul Sartre, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalists threatened to get out of hand. Cinching his toga, Virgil admitted being weary of his special status, which allowed him to freely roam the levels of Purgatory, and permitted him to guide Dante's vision of it long centuries past. "I who possessed the soul of a poet, now find myself a mediator of petty imbroglios," he said, disappearing as Elvis emerged from the mists.
Clad in black leather, the king wore a puzzled frown, and peered into the fog upon hearing a male voice yodeling "Mule Skinner Blues." A man came forth wearing a velvet coat with ruffles embroidered in gold lace. A gold sword the size of a child's toy dangled from a scabbard at his waist. He hefted a billiard cue in one hand, and carried a tattered lace handkerchief in the other. "Good mornin' Captain. Good mornin' to ya son," he warbled. "Do ya need another muleskinner—. How am I doing?" called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
"Ah'm big on country music, Wolfie," Elvis said. "Y'all ain't doin' so bad."
"That was terrible. Dreadful." The harsh shout was followed by the appearance of a swarthy man who hawked and spat near Mozart's shoes. Startled, Mozart leaped. "Ludwig you gave me a fright."
"Always you are frightened—such a stumpf . Won't you agree, Herr Presley?"
Ludwig Van Beethoven spat again and jerked a mass of frizzy hair from his eyes.
Overwhelmed by a commingling of odors—fry grease and perspiration— surrounding Beethoven, Elvis eased several paces away. "He's a delicate fellow, sir," Elvis noted, still unfailingly polite to his elders.
"I," said Beethoven, thumping his chest, "I who was one of the world's great geniuses, have been noodling with—what is it—Delta blues?" He gestured toward Elvis. "You, young hound dog, were a progenitor of such were you not? Or did you merely rip off Mama Thornton?"
Elvis drew a deep breath. "Ah ain't gonna fall for your goading, Ludy," he said. "I sang some blues, but I wouldn't call me no progenitor."
"Hah!" cried Beethoven, and both Mozart and Elvis turned away from the breathy assault. Descending on them, Beethoven sang, "I got a woman mean as she can be," in heavily accented German. "It's not exactly ta-ta-ta-tummm—ta-ta-ta-tummm," he bellowed. "But then," he added, shrugging, "what is?"
"Any of my horn concertos," answered Mozart. "Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaa-ba-bumm," he sang. "The herren Flanders and Swan—contemporaries of Elvis—had a field day with that one, I'm told."
Virgil reappeared to remind the men that rendering their own tunes or compositions was strictly verboten, and could result in banishment to the authors' quarters, where they'd be subjected to repeated readings from "The Bridges of Madison County," and selected poems of Edgar Guest.
"Oh remand me, Virgil. Please, I implore you," said Mozart. "What I'd give to finally meet this Alexander Sergeivich Pushkin."
Virgil frowned. "What's your point?"
"His point, mein Virgil," hollered Beethoven, "is to once and for all determine whether or not our Wolfgang Amadeus was poisoned by Salieri."
"Hey, Ah see lots of them Eyetalian fellas here." Elvis said. "Besides ol' Celery, we got Dean Martin, and Enricky Caruso himself, who keeps after me to sing 'Vesti la Goombah' from 'Palachy'. But Ah ain't gonna sing no Eyetalian clown songs. Ah really want outta here." He looked into the faces of Virgil, Beethoven, and Mozart. "So, ya think Celery poisoned Wolfie?"
"Perhaps," said Beethoven, pulling Elvis away from Mozart. He cupped his hand to Elvis' ear and yelled, "It's been rumored for centuries that Salieri poisoned young Mozart in a jealous rage."
"Shoot, why'd he be jealous of little Wolfie?"
"You don't understand, kinder," Beethoven replied. "Mozart composed music with no more difficulty than breathing. Melodies, supertonic chromatic chords, even entire symphonies effortlessly gushed from him. He'd have a whole orchestration down on paper before Salieri—indeed any of us—might have conjured one single bar. It wasn't fair, of course. Salieri might have done the deed, and more power to him. But he never admits or denies involvement. He keeps saying, 'Ask Pushkin. He knows.'"
"Who is this Pushkin fella?" Elvis solicited.
"Russian writer," Mozart said. "Couple of his stories became operas."
"Russian, huh? In mah day, them Ruskies were sneaky spies. Ya couldn't trust 'em. The President of the United States, Mr. Nixon sure didn't trust 'em, and his word was good enough for me. I never trusted the Russkies neither, and I suggest y'all tell 'em to kiss off. Make ya feel just a whole lot better."
Virgil smiled. "There is of course, a void between authors and musicians which under present circumstances, cannot be bridged."
"Yes, it was Pushkin who first postulated the theory," Mozart said. "But that Shaffer twin fanned the flames with his twentieth century drama. Had he not read Pushkin he'd have never written 'Amadeus.'" Mozart sighed. "As for Salieri—. It was reported I died of uremia."
"Ooo--hurt real bad to pee?" Elvis grimaced and clutched his groin.
Mozart pressed on. "My demise was a tragedy for all mankind. What I would have accomplished in a normal lifespan boggles the mind. You might ask Ludwig how many symphonies he'd composed by the time he was 30."
Beethoven clapped his hands over his ears and hummed.
"See, he hears more than he lets on." Mozart smiled. "Before I turned 30, I'd completed 40 symphonies. Think of it. In Ludwig's entire career, there were but nine. Nine, and one measly opera. My first symphony was done when I was eight and by 11, I'd finished an opera."
"Say what you will, you little schnitzel," thundered Beethoven, "but at least I had integrity. I never wrote on the whim of any patron. I perfected my work."
"And where did that get you?" Mozart said. "You lived in a pig sty, and got on with no one. You were never invited to any of the soirees, because you offended everyone. And didn't I try hammering sensibility into that wooly head of yours when you visited Vienna in 1787? Haydn thought you were the next coming of me."
"Idiot—that Haydn!" roared Beethoven. "So bound by tradition. A man of limited paradigms."
"You are wrong." Mozart sighed. "Haydn thought you were a young man of potential. To hear you speak so disparagingly when it is abundantly clear that whatever vicissitudes befell you, were largely of your own making. I, the childhood playmate of Marie Antoinette; I who knew my way around the courts, tried convincing you that you did yourself no favors with your rudeness, your vulgarity, your avoidance of personal hygiene. Had your mother never told you to wash behind your ears, or scrub your waistcoat?"
"Hey, we never had none of them courts in mah day, but Ah went to the White House once," Elvis intruded. "Invited by Richard Nixon himself. The dude must be around somewhere. Be a kick to see him again. The Main Man, President of the United States standin' right across from me there in the big ol' White House. Y'all shoulda been there. The President gave me a Narcotics Bureau badge and tol' me Ah was designated as special assistant in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs."
"It was nice of your president to do that," Mozart said.
Elvis nodded. "Momma always tol' me it never hurt nothin' to be nice. The President was nice to me. Ah was nice to Ann Margaret." Elvis assumed a thoughtful pose, fingers lightly touching his brow. "What I'd give to be ridin' a big ol' Harley with Ann Margaret right now. There was a real woman for ya."
"This Ann Margaret," said Beethoven. "She was a princess, a duchess, no doubt?"
"All of that and more, man," Elvis said, smoothing his hair, unzipping his jacket.
Mozart grew pensive. "I made do with Costanze. Hindsight leaves me to regard her a bit of a simpleton. She didn't even bother to have my grave marked. So I received none of the tributes I so richly deserved."
Beethoven cleared his throat. "Ugly woman, Costanze. And common. Myself I preferred women of title, when I preferred them at all."
"You were wicked to them, Ludwig," Mozart said. "Name one who would have had you. Beyond your filthy habits your politics were outrageous. Elvis, did you know der Spagnol here believed Napoleon was almost a god? He did. Actually, composed a symphony for him. Of course, he later changed it, and you are probably familiar with it as 'Eroica.'"
"Can't say Ah know the tune," Elvis said.
Beethoven cursed. "A man makes mistakes. I admired Napoleon for his decisiveness. In any case, after declaring himself Emperor, I had nothing to do with him." He turned to Mozart, and growled. "How many times must I warn you not to call me der Spagnol. As you are well aware, I'm no more Spanish than Beatrice."
"Ah'd dig a chick," Elvis said. "Who's Beatrice?"
"A woman for the ages, young man," said Virgil, reappearing. "The very essence of beauty and grace."
"Ah find that hard to believe. For mah money, it would still be Ann Margaret."
"Beatrice," pronounced Virgil in a stentorian voice, glaring at Elvis.
Elvis nodded and paused. "Well, in mah lifetime, everybody called me the king. Ah was too, in a way. How many number one hits you have, Mr. Beethoven, sir?"
"I was number eins all my life." He squared off before Elvis, hands on hips. "King, eh? I very much question that," he snarled. "Even that donkey, Von Lobkowitz had more royalty in his little finger than you. Lobkowitz was a patron. Treated artists like hired swords. But NOT ME!" Beethoven roared, his pocked face florid. "Haydn and Mozart—Salieri—all of them, toads. Obsequious, groveling and scraping, hoping for crumbs from the rich. But not me." He paused, a faraway look in his blue eyes. "You should have been there in 1824 when my Ninth Symphony premiered. You'd have learned something, I can tell you. After 'Ode To Joy,' the entire audience stood and cheered with such gusto I feared the chandeliers would loosen and crash upon the floor."
"Shoot, hardly nobody ever sat while Ah sang, man. You might say mah whole career was one great big standing ovation."
"They used to say the same things about me." Mozart sniffled and dabbed a handkerchief to his nose. "And still, Virgil, I take umbrage at my presence here. To think I was knighted by the pope when I was a boy of 14. That alone should have granted me an angelic escort to the heavenly realm, not to mention the 202 hours of music I composed in half a lifetime." He turned to Beethoven. "Now, you are quite another matter. When you were deprived of your hearing you remained nasty, even to those who sought to assist you. You absolutely savaged that splendid Graf piano you kept in your squalid room in the Schwarzpanier. Therefore, I can come to no other conclusion than that it was your temper that brought you to this place, and keeps you here. Am I right, Virgil?"
Virgil dematerialized. The three musicians were left with a shadow vision of what appeared as three young women dancing before a stage. The scene quickly dissolved in a cold white glare that seemed to have no source, and Elvis shielded his eyes. "Damn, Ah could do with muh shades," he said, before turning with the others as Virgil returned trailed by someone wearing a fedora with a trench coat tossed over his shoulder. The glow of his cigarette illumined one side of his face.
"Virgil never escorted me," Beethoven snapped. "Is this person of great import?"
"Ah'd say so," Elvis said, grinning. "It's Frank, the Chairman of the Board. Hey, Frank was big, done it his way, all the way. He was a swinger, man. Liked takin' things nice and easy. Had me on his television show when I got out of the army. You guys shoulda seen it."
Sinatra, ashen and tired, nodded at Elvis. "Who're the cats in the funny suits?"
"The big hair is Beethoven, and the little fella's Mozart," Elvis said. "How'd you get the personal escort, Frank?"
"I got friends with muscle."
Mozart stood nearby, giving Sinatra a once over. "We've often heard of you," he said. "Ludwig says you were no bel canto. But," he paused, pursing his lips, "you were no castrato either."
Sinatra stiffened. "Hey ciuco," he said squinting over his cigarette, and jabbing a forefinger into Mozart's ruffled chest, "I'd be careful how I talked if I were you." He nudged Elvis. "Does this dummy know who I am?"
"He might, Frank, but like me, you don't have the entourage anymore. It's every man for himself here."
Beethoven regarded Sinatra and approached him. "Don't get too close, dad," Frank said, recoiling from the composer's fetor.
"So you were a swinger, Francis Albert?" said Beethoven. "Tell me, exactly what is the swinger?"
"Piss off, mac."
"You sound much like our Elvis creature," Beethoven shouted around a derisive chortle. "I am not accustomed to being trifled with."
Cigarette ashes scattered over Beethoven as Sinatra waved him away. Then he approached Elvis. "You know I was never a fan of yours," he stated flatly, and leaned toward the younger man. "Having you on the show was strictly a business decision. We needed to pump up the ratings."
"Ah know that. And didn't it ever. That was about the only time you beat the opposition. Musta bothered you, Frank, to not have been all that successful on TV. Come to think of it, y'all didn't have that many million sellers either. Only one or two, I think." He sighed. "There ain't gonna be much about you we don't already know here, especially since stuff has been circulatin' all over from that biography of Kitty Kelley's. It was a scorcher, Frank."
Sinatra's jaws clenched; his fingers twitched, forming a fist. He looked around, as if half-expecting the pack would take over and thrash Elvis. He surveyed the others, spun about and peered into the Purgatorial fog. "Anybody seen Sammy or Dean?"
"Sammy?" said Mozart, and he hummed a few bars of "Adagio for Strings." "Herr Barber is here but keeps to the shadows. He's let Ludwig intimidate him, I'm afraid."
Sinatra briefly studied Mozart, then faced Elvis. "Who are these cretini? Don't they know who I'm talking about?"
"Ol' Wolfie's kind of a tease, Frank."
"Well, some tepppista might bust his chops if he isn't careful." Sinatra glowered, and lit a fresh cigarette. "Not that it matters much anymore, Elvis, but I always wondered about you and Nancy after you got discharged. I read the garbage in the papers, but you know what I thought of journalists—the leeches, the bloodsuckers, the scumbags. You had your own problems, hey? I was just curious. Nancy never said anything. But she had a look—."
Elvis was thoughtful. "Frank, Ah like to think of myself as a gentleman, and a gentleman don't talk about his ladies. But y'all done put me on your show once, gave me a big welcome home." He leaned in and put his arm across Sinatra's shoulders. "Mah advice is just forget it." He paused, then brightened. "Hey, y'all were tight with Shirley MacLaine. Listen, if there's anything to that channeling stuff she dug, maybe it's worth a try. We could go back and look around. Whaddaya think?"
Sinatra glanced at Elvis as he exhaled smoke through his nostrils. "Shirley was a great broad, Elvis, but a bit wackadoodle. For my dough, it was Jack Daniels who knew how to transport this mortal coil, if you know what I mean." Sinatra stared at the erstwhile king. "Elvis, I'm only gonna ask once about you and Nancy."
"Frank, if the blue suede shoe was on the other foot, y'all wouldn't be blabbin' to me about this lady or that." Sinatra sighed and Elvis continued. "Ah can appreciate your state of mind, Frank, so Ah'll make a suggestion. You're already tight with Virgil. Maybe he'll let y'all ask ol' Pushkin."
As a writer and former teacher of writing, I’ve often been asked what a writer’s most important virtue would be. The answer is simple: discipline. Many talented writers have never published, but writers not blessed with brilliance publish because they are determined to write something every day or every Read More
After more than 40 years of toiling at the writer’s trade with only middling success, I’ve learned that the absence of anything resembling a bestseller on my résumé may be due to my lack of idiosyncrasies. Caprices seem to be inherent with people who have Read More
As a writer of more than 50 years experience, I have never written anything approximating a best-seller. Only three of my nine published books have earned back their advance. And only one of those advances has reached five figures. The advertising support I’ve received from publishers has been minimal. In author-speak, this is called mid-list.
But even without a best-seller, my journey hasn’t been without adventure, and some of them may be of use or interest to an audience of readers and writers.
When my biography of Garrison Keillor was published back in 1987, I heard that the sales division of St. Martin’s Press regarded Keillor as merely a regional phenomenon, and upon learning that the book wasn’t universally distributed, I complained to my agent. She promised to talk to St. Martin’s, but cautioned me, and related the sad tale of another client who had recently seen her first novel released as a remainder because none of the chains purchased it. At least my book was noticed.
But only a fraction of the 330,000 books annually published in the U. S. receive even one printed review. Further, only 10 percent of newspaper readers read reviews. And more vexing, reviews rarely impact book sales. According to Kay Sexton, former president of the old B Dalton chain, book sellers are far more persuaded by the publisher’s advertising budget, which influences the book’s display. The majority of authors are now responsible for nearly all promotion themselves.
I became an accidental author, who probably would not have gone on to write had I not published the first piece I ever attempted.
Back in the early 1960s I was a folksinger, performing in clubs, coffee houses, and on college campuses. I really wasn’t very impressive, and survived mostly on chutzpah, and the good fortune of working with a talented partner. But when the demise of coffee houses, and the concomitant ascension of rock and roll led to declining gigs, the show biz career ended. But I shared anecdotes with people who urged me to write them down. Reader’s Digest, someone said, would pay a thousand dollars for amusing stories. So I took that advice, spent a couple hours typing a 4-page article and sent it off. It came back. A note said my manuscript didn’t meet Reader’s Digest present needs. I asked a friend if I should send it back in a few weeks, when it might meet their needs. I learned that day about form rejections, but a professor urged me to submit to another magazine. On my fourth try, it was rejected again, but this time there was a note from the editor. “You don’t write badly,” he began, before telling me I was off the mark sending him this piece. But he offered a few suggestions and said with a re-write some other magazine might very well take it.
I did as he suggested and immediately sold the article. For $60. Now, having only spent a couple hours composing and typing that story, I figured I could easily find three hours a week to craft essays that might fetch more $60 checks. So I did this, but 15 months passed before I made another sale—this time for $50. However, in those 15 months I acquired the disciplined habit of writing.
By now I was in grad school at Kent State in Ohio, with an assistantship that involved overseeing the night shift at the campus radio station. One day a nerdy kid named Harold brought me a tape recording of his godfather, and thought I should put it on the air. He said he was named after the old man, adding his godfather knew a lot about books.
Harold’s godfather turned out to be Harold Latham, the long-time legendary editor at MacMillan, reading from his yet-to-be-published memoir, “My Life in Publishing.” The chapter he was reading detailed his excursion through the South seeking manuscripts. He stopped in Atlanta and met a woman who reluctantly surrendered a satchel containing a typescript that become “Gone With the Wind.” Two nights later our tiny station scooped the country on Mr. Latham’s discovery of Mrs. Mitchell and her novel.
Radio also figured in my writing shortly after when I started teaching at Marietta College in Ohio, where I hosted an interview/discussion program that was broadcast on a network of college stations. Several programs featured author interviews. Harry Golden, who published an influential weekly tabloid, The Carolina Israelite, was promoting his new book, and his tour took him to town for a lecture. During our interview he mentioned that publishing a book was a tactile pleasure. “My good friend Carl Sandburg once told me, ‘Harry, there’s nothing as satisfying as holding your new book in your hands for the very first time.” I have found for myself that Carl and Harry were right.
Another program featured the much honored poet, Richard Wilbur, who talked about his early career, trying to make it in New York after he’d finished college. He said he anticipated pseudonymously churning out pot-boiler paperbacks to support his poetry. “I failed miserably,” he said. “You really can’t write beneath yourself. And since all writing is hard, just knuckle down and do the work you’re meant to do.” Good recommendation, but I temporarily ignored it and tried to write pulpy western stories for a year or so myself—with similar results.
That was only the first time I ignored advice from a seasoned author. Some years ago my wife and I spent a week at the Williamsville, Virginia farm of Donald McCaig, who used to be an essayist on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and would later be selected by the Margaret Mitchell estate to write a sequel to “Gone With the Wind.” During one conversation, McCaig said, “Don’t teach writing if you don’t have to. If you do your students will assume you will always mentor them. They think they can lay claim on your involvement with their work forever.”
I dismissed his counsel as well, and a decade after I’d left teaching at the Loft in Minneapolis, I continued to get those requests.
However, there have been delights along the way. Back in 1968 a story came to me, and I wrote it in a single afternoon. It was titled “The Carnival,” a sci-fi fantasy, such as I’d never before written or since. The story was about a future society in which people attended government-sponsored carnivals where the rides could be lethal; a population control program. The story has been revered by teachers and pupils, and nearly 50 years later is still widely taught in both middle and high school English classes. The story originally appeared in several Scholastic Magazines, and later in an anthology titled “How To Read a Short Story,” where it is sandwiched between works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. I’m the only non-household name appearing in the anthology.
A couple years after that I made my first sale to the New York Times with a piece to the Sunday Travel section. In 1970 I was at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. Judy, my wife, had gone on a faculty wives outing to a small museum in the little village of Chazy, NY. She was very taken with the William H. Miner Museum there, that featured an eclectic collection of mostly Revolutionary War period memorabilia. Miner was a native son who made a fortune from inventing the railroad car coupling, and an eccentric who underwrote the surgical wing at the Plattsburgh hospital. Upon its completion, he insisted on being the first patient. Though in excellent health, doctors who couldn’t dissuade him, performed a simple tonsillectomy. An infection ensued, and Miner died.
In any case, Judy insisted I needed to visit the museum and write a travel story for the Times. Certain the times would reject me, I sent it to papers in Syracuse and Albany, which rejected it. I finally relented, and ten days later there was my return envelope in my P. O. Box. I almost tossed it out unopened. However, instead of the rejected manuscript, there was an advance tear-sheet of my article, along with a check for $150.
This was the beginning of a 15-year association with the Times, that resumed when we moved back to Minnesota, and became a stringer. It was a great gig representing our national newspaper of record, and yet, the Times, like any paper, employed some people who were over their heads. One was an assistant editor.
I’d been publishing profiles of businesses and entrepreneurs in the Sunday business section, and in one piece I mentioned a program instituted by the old Control Data corporation, that had reduced the company’s workmen compensation costs.
The day after filing the story, an editor called. “On page three, you mention workmen’s compensation.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’ll need more than that,” he said.
I asked what he meant.
“Give me a paragraph explaining it,” he said. He’d never before heard of it.
I said, “I don’t think readers of your financial pages need a primer on workmen’s comp.”
“Just do it,” he snapped.
I did, but it was excised prior to publication.
Another time I wrote a humorous short story for AMERICA WEST AIRLINES MAGAZINE about quilting being added as a winter Olympic sport. Written in the style of a newspaper feature, the piece quoted septuagenarian quilters regarding the athletic prowess necessary for Olympic quilting, and they mentioned medications needed to keep them competitive. I received a call from the director of publications at a large pharmaceutical firm. He wanted me to do a follow-up article for one of his trade journals, incorporating his firm’s heart medication into the text. He offered $1000 for the piece.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and after a pause, told him the story was fiction.
“Oooh, do I have egg on my face,” he said.
Another story, purchased by AMERICAN WAY, the tony inflight magazine for American Airlines, befuddled its fact checker. I’d never heard of a fact checker for fiction, but he called. After consulting several atlases, he was unable to locate several of the towns I’d referenced in the story. “But this is fiction,” I said. “I made them up.”
“Oh, then I suppose the newspapers you mention in those towns are fictitious also,” he said.
Prior to those experiences, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Stout in Menomonie, and hung out with other wannabe writers. One was Scott Chisholm, who many years later, shortly before he died, published an excellent book about walking the old Mormon Trail. Scott had been publishing fiction in literary quarterlies, but wanted to break into the slicks where he’d see checks instead of a couple contributors copies of the issues in which his writing appeared. He said he was going to try for REDBOOK because they published two short stories in each issue. Scott spent an hour every day in the campus library analyzing all the fiction that appeared in REDBOOK for the past two years.
“I think I’ve got it,” he told me one afternoon. Several weeks later he’d finished a and sent it off. Six weeks later the editors returned it with a note: “We regret rejecting your manuscript, but it sounds too much like a REDBOOK story.”
In 1973 I thought I’d try crafting a novel. The story I wanted to write included the 1920 lynchings here in Duluth. My original intent was to write a story set in post-world war one northern Minnesota, and use the lynching as a chapter in the book, with the main character witnessing the event.
Upon researching the story, I realized there was no documenting of this long-forgotten tragedy and began to record what really happened.
I assumed this story would resonate with publishers. I finished the manuscript in 1975 and began submitting. Nearly 40 publishers passed on it. One turned it down because, “We don’t feel it would be profitable, as black people don’t read books.”
A fledgling firm in Orange County, CA accepted the manuscript, giving it the title “They Was Just Niggers,” taken from a quote from a man, who in the lynching aftermath wondered “Why all this fuss? After all, they was just Niggers. But the title was a marketing disaster, because it was never on end-caps, and buyers wouldn’t ask for that title. Then too, there was a negative review in the Minneapolis Tribune, in which the reviewer chided me for resurrecting the incident and, “rubbing our noses in it all over again.”
In any case, six months following publication, the publisher filed for bankruptcy, and sent me a check for $260—the only payment received for the first edition of that book.
14 years later, the book was reissued by Harlin Quist, whom some of you might remember from his residency here. While living in Paris he’d become a respected publisher of lavishly illustrated children’s books. His author/artist roster included Robert Graves, Eugene Ionesco, and Edward Gorey.
He released a nicely designed book retitled “Trial By Mob,” and said he thought there might be film offers. There were a few tentative nibbles, but no offers. I got a letter from a reader who was sure she could get Hollywood interested, because, she wrote, “Danny Bonaduce’s sister is my best friend.” Anybody here remember him, the red-headed kid from The Partridge Family? Nada.
I never got a dime from Quist’s edition. He left town, bills unpaid, and whereabouts unknown. He was given a major obit in the New York Times following his death.
Since 2000 the Minnesota Historical Society Press has kept “The Lynchings in Duluth” alive, with a new, slightly revised edition released last March.
I long ago abandoned the fanciful notion that as an author I might become rich and famous. So in summing up, what does literary life look like for this mid-list author?
In an essay from his book “Crooning,” the late John Gregory Dunne defined writing as “Manual labor of the mind. a job like laying pipe.”
Not a very romantic notion. And as a young aspiring writer I devoured all of the PARIS REVIEW WRITERS AT WORK interviews. Reflecting on them they seemed to consist of midmorning hours at the typewriter with breaks for tea or coffee, lunch, then afternoons reserved for correspondence, reading, light research, perhaps a tennis match and twilight cocktails prior to the evening’s soiree, which would be a gathering of stimulating glitterati.
What I didn’t understand then was that few authors earn enough in royalties to support that literary lifestyle.
After five decades of meandering around the edges of literary life, while holding jobs with regular paychecks, I’ve yet to enjoy the unhurried and intellectually engaging existence of those Paris Review authors.
In any case, I’ve lived in working class communities where literature was not intrinsically valued and fellow writers were scarce or nonexistent.
Otherwise, there’s been little change in this writer’s life. I deal with editorial rejection, occasional acceptances, and a paucity of literary discussion. No soirees, few lunches with editors and agents. Perhaps the literary life isn’t about hobnobbing with editors and pitching screen treatments to Hollywood producers. Most likely it is simply my job and yours—the task of all writers—an ongoing effort to lay more pipe. Read More
By Michael Fedo | 07/29/16
During the last month I’ve frequently been asked to comment on Garrison Keillor retiring after more than four decades with National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” This isn’t surprising, since nearly 30 years ago I published an unauthorized biography of the Old Scout, titled “The Man From Lake Wobegon.”
“Well, it’s the end of an era,” I may respond, but questioners expect more. After all, he strongly opposed the biography, at first claiming it was an invasion of his privacy, then declaring the published book was poorly researched and dreadfully written. But that’s just his opinion; my dad thought it was terrific, and so did Mother’s cousin Jean, who as a teenager was published in The Atlantic.
Folks who remember the biography assume I was acquainted with Keillor, but I’ve never met the man, and my only communication with him was an exchange of letters when I announced my intention of writing his biography and requesting an interview, and his reply, a hand-written letter declining to participate, and informing me his friends wouldn’t either.
Met with silence
Soon I learned that "Prairie Home Companion" and Minnesota Public Radio employees were advised not to communicate with me. In addition, Keillor’s attorneys sent a letter to the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin school district where Keillor had been a student, which was disseminated to all employees, stating that Keillor did not approve of the proposed biography, emphasizing the invasion of privacy again — i.e., he was not a public person. I suppose I could be resentful, but I’m not. It was my first book with a New York publisher, and I was grateful for that opportunity.
However, the biography was not an author in search of a publisher, but the reverse. My then-agent had met with Thomas Dunne at St. Martin’s Press, who wondered if she had a client willing to write the biography.
I accepted the assignment for a modest advance, and set to work. I was, of course, disappointed that Keillor was unavailable for interviews, but as a neophyte biographer, I’d have given him the final edit had he requested it. I realized upon completing the manuscript, however, that would have meant the book would never have been published.
Then several months prior to the book’s release, when Keillor announced his resignation from "A Prairie Home Companion," he was simultaneously feuding with local media, making disparaging remarks about Minnesota. As the publication date neared, Keillor’s regional popularity had taken a hit, and many lost interest in the man who’d become an icon.
National appeal was underestimated
While the book’s 25,000 copy print run sold out — if remaindered copies count — sales did not meet expectations. St. Martin’s sales staff underestimated Keillor’s appeal around the country, assuming the Twin Cities would be the best market, and didn’t aggressively promote it elsewhere, though sales were strong in Nashville, where performers on "PHC," such as Chet Atkins were prominent.
I was a Keillor fan back then, and remained a follower of the program even after he put a fictitious me in his 1991 novel “WLT: A Radio Romance,” where a community college instructor (me) attempting to write an unauthorized biography of a radio celebrity is run down by a truck and left brain dead. I thought this odd because in the typical roman a clef, readers know who the target is. With relatively meager sales of the biography, hardly any readers of WLT knew who that was.
So one of America’s all-time favorite storytellers is leaving the airwaves, but not riding into the sunset. Perhaps his departure adds cash value to the letter he sent me in 1986, but that’s to be determined by folks who bid on eBay. Still, I wish Mr. Keillor well in whatever is his next incarnation. To sum up his career and my own assessment I refer to a quote by a character in one of screenwriter and film producer Ernest Lehman’s short stories: “He brung happiness to millions.” No minor accomplishment that, and a notable legacy. Read More
The following blog also appears on the University of Minnesota's Blog Page
You Can Go Home Again
For all the notoriety surrounding Thomas Wolfe's 1940 posthumous novel You Can't Go Home Again, the title had it wrong. We can go home again.
And in truth, we never leave, because home permanently inhabits our souls. Home is more than place—it is personal, foundational, and it defines us.
I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 31, 1939, where I was raised and educated until leaving the city at age twenty-five to attend graduate school at Kent State University in Ohio. I would never live in Duluth again. Yet, five decades later, I am Duluthian to the core.
While at Kent, I was encouraged to write down stories shared with colleagues about having been a folk singer in Duluth. One piece was finally published in a now defunct magazine, but this experience kindled a writing career that for me has resulted in nine published books, countless articles and essays, more than 50 short stories, and a handful of poems. None of this would have happened if not for my early and formative quarter-century in the two-story house at 918 North Tenth Avenue East in the central hillside neighborhood.
There, I was surrounded by first- and second-generation Swedes, Germans, Finns, and several Jewish families. My father was the only Italian resident. I was immersed in these cultural influences; many of the dialects and vernacular would later infuse the conversations of my characters. The ethnic quiddities of Italians and Swedes, Jews and Finns, as well as their customs, foods, and religions would become building blocks to the writerly existence that emerged long after my egress.
My new book, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, contains 30+ stories grounded in Duluth—its characters, its landmarks, Lake Superior. These pieces span 40+ years, and comprise nearly half of all my essays and stories.
When taking stock of a lifetime of writing, I'm amazed by how much of my work has been rooted in the city where I was raised. In contrast, I'm also amazed by how little of my other writings have been connected to any physical “place.” Throughout my extended Duluth residency, I overheard conversations and noted observations that continue to resonate. Though absent 50 years, a plurality of my published oeuvre has coalesced in Duluth.
In the book's introduction, I ponder whether there is something about the city that drives creative endeavor. A cluster of notables have for varying lengths of time made Duluth their dwelling, including Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis, jazz pianist Sadik Hakim, 1950s song lyricist Sammy Gallop, actor/singer/songwriter/television writer/voice of Garfield Lorenzo Music, and even Kojack star Telly Savalas. Of course, there was Bob Dylan, though his family left for Hibbing when he was a tyke. But his awareness of the lynching of three black circus workers on June 15, 1920, from a downtown Duluth streetlamp is the cornerstone of his classic song “Desolation Row.” (I later documented this tragedy in the book The Lynchings in Duluth.)
Since departing Duluth, those years of habitation continue to be processed in my work. I recall how several friends and I often felt at odds with our upbringing. The culture in which we grew up didn't seem to nurture the writer I would become. I don't recall hearing the the cliched encouragement “you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.” Our people sought stability, steady employment, a life absent of risk. I still find myself a bit risk-averse about sending manuscripts to The New Yorker or The Atlantic. But I can't blame Duluth for that. Instead, I sought the comfortable, fitting in with the mainstream, believing instead a high school teacher's admonition that we should be modest, because we had a lot to be modest about.
Despite frequent adolescent irritations with the city—especially late spring snowfalls that canceled ball games and brought despair to this baseball-addled boy—I am grateful to Duluth, my family, the old neighborhood, and the lifelong friends for supplying so many rich anecdotes and characters that have truly shaped and sustained the writer I have become.
Though some may quibble with this, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, is a love letter to my hometown, which as its stories reveal, I have never quite left.
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