Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Better late than never

Colleen Mondor's blog Chasing Ray has been a pleasure of mine for many years now, and Colleen herself a wonderful correspondent and internet friend.  Her book The Map of My Dead Pilots, about the years she spent working in the aviation business in Alaska, came out several months ago, but I'm only just catching up with it here.  In the end I asked Colleen a single question, and she was kind enough to give a very rich and full answer....

JMD: I read The Map of My Dead Pilots in a few sittings at the end of December, and it’s stayed very much with me in subsequent weeks.  I loved the piece you wrote for John Scalzi's Big Idea column about what it means to write a story about real things that happened to real people; I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, and I think your discussion there would be of particular interest to a writer in the early stages of a project where it hadn’t yet emerged whether the book was going to be written as fiction or nonfiction (the sort of question one might ask in a creative writing class where one read Tim O’Brien, Mary Karr, etc.).  I wanted to ask you a quite different question, though.  I was struck and moved, as I read the book, by how much it turns out to be a book about your father.  Did you know, when you started writing about flying in Alaska, that this would be such an important component of the book in its final version?  Or was it largely a surprise?

CM: Honestly, when I started writing I never intended to write anything other than Alaska stories. The first one I wrote was about the pilot who crashed on the ice off the coast of Nome. I had interviewed him when I was in grad school and that accident impressed me a great deal - it was so close to being a national tragedy. That was what I thought the book would be about though, the guys I knew, the accidents and incidents I was familiar with and what day to day life at the Company was like.

The turning point came when I wrote about the summer of 1999. Several of my friends were aware I was writing the book and over the years they had asked why I still thought about it all so very much. We have all moved on in many ways (if not physically from AK then professionally and personally with new jobs and children, etc.) and yet for me there is much about the Company that remains very close. I couldn't explain why though until I sat down to write about the day at the bar when I interviewed the pilot who had known my friend "Luke" and was there when he crashed into the mountain while chasing wolves. I wanted to write about our conversation because it was so surreal and it tied directly into my ongoing struggle to absolve Luke of all blame in that accident. But I couldn't write honestly about that summer without explaining what I was going through and that meant writing also about Bryce, the Company pilot who died in the Yukon River in June of '99. And writing about Bryce's death meant writing about where I was when I heard and that was in Florida where I was preparing for my own father's funeral.

Just like that, in careful precise steps, my father entered the story. The chapter radically changed from what I had planned although Luke remained a big part of it. Ultimately though, in writing about that summer I came to understand just how my father, who never visited Alaska, was nevertheless critical to my Alaska experiences. The summer of 1999 is always, and always will be, all about losing him and because of that everyone else who was part of it - Bryce and Luke and all the interviews with all the pilots I did that summer for my thesis - are part of his death as well. And the grief that my brother and I felt so strongly then has not diminished over the years. Thus it will always be the summer of just five minutes ago and all of those young men will be with me in a way that I never expected nor could ever have imagined.

MAP was supposed to be about flying in Alaska but it became a book about why stories matter and how, in that particular place and time, stories took on an unexpected power. My brother and I tell our children stories about our father all the time; they are the only way we have now to make him real for them. We are trying to make a man they never had the chance to know still be unforgettable. It is, we believe, nothing less than what he deserves. I really and truly did not want to write about my father - I thought it would hurt too much - but in a lot of unexpected ways, writing about him in MAP was the best thing I could have done. And thus when I went back to the Company and stood on the now empty ramp, I understood why all of it meant so much. When I was at the Company - when we were all there - my father was alive and well in Florida. It's a snapshot in time I would give anything to have back, for obvious reasons. Just like that, a book on Alaska flying becomes just as much a book about mourning a parent. Writers, I learned, do not write (or live) in a vacuum nor are Alaska and Florida really that far apart.

I set out to write only about Alaska flying and ended up writing also about the beach in Florida. The connection is obvious to me now but it wasn't until I wrote it that I knew it existed. Isn't that crazy?

Friday, January 27, 2012

End-of-week update

These Seven Sicknesses, a.k.a. the Sophocles marathon at the Flea, was highly worthwhile: the treatment of the Oedipus plays seems a bit unstable on the farce-tragedy axis (and I thought the actor playing Oedipus was perhaps the weakest in the show, or at any rate his performance was too campy to be at all moving), but the middle segment of Philoctetes-Ajax is excellent (the Ajax staging is just superb, particularly the handling of the sheep scene) and the concluding pair of Electra-Antigone works very well also.

I finished reading A Dance with Dragons and all I can say is that I really do not see that George R. R. Martin will be able to wrap up the rest of the story in only one more volume, however long!  He is temperamentally averse to leaving anything out, and it leads to some frustrating choices in volumes four and five; my heart sank when I realized that the last volume was literally going to go back to the temporal starting point of the previous one and cover exactly the same time period, not to show a markedly divergent view but just to fill out some things that didn't fit in.  You then see a character you care about, who grew and changed over the previous installment, back in his pre-change version, and for no good reason; this strikes me as a fundamental breach of the compact with the reader, just as I dislike the playing-fast-and-loose-with-alternate-timestream thing that a certain television series I love has been indulging in: the sense of reality you have in television drama is thin enough that you cannot afford to erode it too far by, say, bringing back to life a character you have killed off in the alternate timestream by letting the space-time continuum shift and reconfigure everything. . . .

(You can get the first four installments of George R. R. Martin in a box or a bundle, but really what I recommend instead is Wolf Hall on the one end or Garth Nix's brilliant Abhorsen trilogy on the other.)

The due date is rapidly approaching for my ratings on second-round reading for the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, so I won't be writing much here about what I'm reading over next few weeks (confidentiality!), and I'm also teaching Clarissa again this semester, which eats up quite a bit of reading time.  However there is always room for a little light reading round the edges...

Miscellaneous links:

Neil Gaiman on growing up reading C. S. Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton.

And I'm giving a talk today at 4pm at the CUNY Graduate Center; I am just hoping it will stop raining to the extent that people will actually be willing to leave their dwellings and venture out into the world to come to it!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Commitment strategies

I'm now full of regret that I didn't push harder on novel revisions over the winter break, as it is indeed very difficult to get work done steadily once the semester starts and with the additional commitment to a demanding fitness regimen!  I am trying to remember that I was working as hard as I could manage through a spell of rather low spirits and the accumulated tiredness of the fall semester, but still - this is now exactly the sort of work overload situation that I am trying to avoid in order not to find myself so wiped out in the first place!...

I think I have to be done with this revision before the week of Feb. 13 (that week I've got a book review due, a guest lecture at the New School and a dissertation defense, and I'm giving a talk out of town the following week, so it's pretty much a guarantee of no mental or practical space for my own writing for the whole middle stretch of the month).  I want to be able to get one more round of editorial feedback and also let the new draft sit and gel for a few weeks before I come back to it for a good final round of revision over my spring break in March.  If I say here that I intend this, it will help make it happen....

I've got a few interesting books to read for additional fillips of research and thinking.  Ken Wark kindly sent me a copy of his book Gamer Theory, and I plucked the classic Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational from a shelf in Butler the other evening (it was nearly adjacent to this volume which I could not resist checking out as well, though I am not sure when I'll get around to reading it).


World of Wires was great (comic and innovative use of cans of Pringles!), and we had a very good dinner afterwards too at La Lunchonette, which I walk by all the time (it's on my route home from Chelsea Piers to the subway) but which I ate at for the first time only recently when Liz and I needed a place to repair the nutritional inroads of a long workout.  I had mentally noted that it would likely appeal to theater companion G., and indeed it was just the right place to go on a snowy January night; we both started with French onion soup, then I had sauteed scallops (at a certain sort of restaurant, this is an entree likely to leave you still hungry, but here it was a copious portion with green beans and a large helping of nutritionally unsound scalloped potatoes) and tarte tatin.  G. had the cassoulet, a dish I am not enthusiastic about but that I think so much sums up the virtues of the winter version of this sort of French country cooking that I was very glad someone ordered it!

"Oliver. North. Reagan."

Angela Carter's luxury.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The view from the trenches

Undoubted air of faculty glumness in Philosophy Hall today, the first day of classes! 

Those of you who are my 'friends' on Facebook will have already heard me bemoan the fact that Village Copier does not seem to have kept the original master for my History of the Novel I course reader, and as I seem to have had call to say frequently in recent weeks, desperate situations call for desperate remedies: the only thing to do was clean out my office....

(I got tenure two and a half years ago, and it was thus in the nature of life timelines that I was given a new office and a new apartment within a matter of weeks.  I devoted all my attention to packing and settling in at the new apartment, which is underfurnished but tidy; the new office, on the other hand, pretty much stayed in boxes, so this massive unpacking and cleaning is overdue by at least two years.)

I haven't found the missing master - I think they really must have thrown it away as they said - but I have found the marked-up old lecture notes and two copies of the bound course reader, one with teaching notes in it and one clean one that I can disassemble and use to scan a new master.  I think I may experiment for the first time this semester with providing critical readings online rather than in xeroxed form: for a seminar, I hold to the old-school method, because I want students to have a physical copy of the readings in class to look at while we discuss them and because student print quotas and notions of ecological soundness do not encourage generous use of paper, but I think in the lecture course I can afford to try it the other way.

(Have thrown away three or four contractor's bags of paper, mostly printouts of PDFs from ECCO and clean and marked-up drafts of my last academic book.  NB I am in need of another massive project like that one: something that will make me scan and engulf a huge new body of material that I'm not already acquainted with.  My most recent two book projects - style, BOMH - are both relatively small-scale, something that has disadvantages as well as benefits.  Also NB if you leave papers in boxes for a pretty long time, they become very easy to throw away once they are opened back up again....)

Not much to report otherwise.  Still ploughing through the novels of George R. R. Martin, which really are not enough to my taste (too much lopping and cropping, stylistic infelicities, switching back and forth between multiple viewpoint characters frustrating - I would rather have a whole novel following one character, then a whole novel following the other) but which are making the time pass.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Have stopped work this afternoon just short of the long final scene, which needs significant revamping (it's not just that I'm moving it from Central Park to Morningside Park, but it's all going to go quite differently this time round).  So: one more editing session with pen and paper, and then I have a messy marked-up pile of manuscript that needs to be transferred to the computer.  I will do one further very thorough going-through, with some bits and pieces of new writing still to be interpolated here and there and hope to send a new version of the novel to my editor before the end of the month.

School starts next week, which is a mixed blessing (really in January I am often in low spirits and ready by now for the distraction of classroom time); I've got one big other work thing due at the end of next week, so I think that I'm going to have to put this aside for some days and organize myself for the beginning of classes before coming back to the novel revision.  However I should be able to make my way to the end first and force myself to undertake the slightly horrible job of typing it all up between now and Tuesday: that's the idea, anyway.

(NB The Young Unicorns stands up pretty well to rereading, and it is interesting for me to see now what I would not have noticed as a child, the fact of its being published in 1968 and written specifically in the shadow of the social transformations of the late 1960s; but A Severed Wasp is dreadful in ways I would not at all have been able to understand when I first read it at age twelve or thirteen, though I still find it grippingly readable in its embarrassing fashion!  Very interesting and appealing, of course, to read two novels set in the neighborhood I've lived in for more than ten years now.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How to Keep Rabbits for Profit and Pleasure

A nice piece on the London Library.  (My grandfather had a lifetime membership, obtained in the early 1950s; he must have gotten more than fifty years of use out of it, but my frugal grandmother still sometimes expressed a wish that it could be transferable to me after his death...)

A medical study of the Haitian zombie.  (Via Hari Kunzru.)

The curse of the trochee?

Friday, January 06, 2012


Replicating the Shackleton spirit.

I had a good moment in the stacks today: I'd gone in to get this so that I could check a couple of quotations in the proofs of my Shakespeare adaptation essay.  My eye wandered (it is the argument for open stacks) down the shelf and I spotted a book I have often heard about but never read, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines.  It is too fragile to pack to take with me, but I am very curious to read some of it.  (Also: disambiguation!)

I've been working steadily albeit in a small way every day on novel revisions, and it's interesting to see how it's coming together.  Confession: desperate situations call for desperate remedies, and I did have to break out the device one day to liberate myself from the internet...

My alarm's set for 5:30am, and my flight to Cayman leaves at 8:45 from JFK.  Apartment is clean and tidy for the catsitter.  Only pity is that it is currently such nice running weather here!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Morningside redux

Had a good couple of hours of work just now; have been revising steadily every day, and the first new take on the first section of the novel is starting to come together pretty well.  New stuff still to write, especially re: the 'missing game' whose real importance seems to have taken a long time to dawn on me. 

I remain optimistic that if I can really sort things out properly for the long opening section (which represents about a third of the book as it now stands), all my other revision choices will be pretty clear and easy...

Still can't believe the library's not open till Wednesday!  Fortunately I have been able to download nearly-free versions of Aristotle's Poetics and The Birth of Tragedy for my Kindle, with intention of rereading both this evening.  (One resolution for this revision is to make more obvious things that might have been clear to me as I was writing but won't necessarily have been clear to the reader; more generally, I'm just trying to pull at the threads of different thematic connections and make things feel more like a really suspenseful culminating sensible whole.) 

I am also meaning to reread Madeleine L'Engle's two quite different novels of Morningside Heights; A Severed Wasp is waiting for me at the Butler circulation desk, even if I can't get it quite yet, and I've just Amazoned myself a copy of The Young Unicorns as it doesn't seem to exist in the BorrowDirect consortium's collections (young-adult collecting is more spotty than adult fiction).

Still feeling pretty off-kilter because of my college friend's death.  Desperate situations call for desperate remedies: I have finally embarked upon the official George R. R. Martin reread!  When the latest installment came out this summer, I thought that it was long enough since I'd read the previous four that I might want to start over again at the beginning.  Put the first one on my Kindle (having long since given away the mass-market paperbacks I read years ago) and have been saving it for a rainy day.  I'm now about three quarters of the way through the first volume, A Game of Thrones, and finding it truly immersive.  The writing is often slightly embarrassing, but it's amazing storytelling, especially in the opening sequence; it is a good way for me to make sure that this week will pass by in a flash!

(Also still grumpy due to lingering cold.  Had to cancel a 5-6-mile run scheduled with a friend for this afternoon, it seemed too strenuous, but I might try for an easy half an hour on my own instead, with commitment to turn around and go home if lungs don't feel adequate to the task.)