by Campbell Geeslin
William Faulkner’s sinister South is not like Willie Morris’s sweet South or Eudora Welty’s sly and secretive South. Advance readers of Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog expressed surprise that a Chinese American, who had never been to that part of the U.S., could create a vivid South that seemed authentic.
A fan of the blues, Cheng, 29, grew up in Queens, N.Y. Last week, he told The New York Times, “I just looked for the things that showed up a lot in the music, images and icons that are prominent in music—the flood, the Devil, the hellhouse. The story formed itself around that.”
To one who has been to the South many times, the place is fixed in time as sun scorched and overrun with rank weeds, honeysuckle and vignettes of abject misery. Every one of us—transients, great authors, and now a blues lover–creates his own South.
Cheng is currently on a book tour through the real South.
HISTORY: Sir Harold Evans, London’s literary gift to New York, reviewed a couple of new histories about the 1914 war for The New York Times Book Review (May 12). In an e-mail to Review editors, Evans observed that these books reminded him again “that history may be made quickly, but it is understood slowly,”
MIXED: “All these things I was interested in—motorcycles, art, revolution and radical politics—don’t seem connected. I thought they could become so, in the space of a novel.” That is the way Rachel Kushner explained The Flamethrowers.
An article about her in The New York Times last week (May 7) was headlined: “Like her novel’s heroine, Rachel Kushner embraces risk.”
Kushner lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five-year-old son. She sometimes rides her father’s motorcycle. The Times said that her book had been “rapturously reviewed.”
In a Paris Review interview on the Internet, Kushner said, “I begin a book with imagery more than I do with an idea or a character. Some kind of poetic image. Rubber was one of the first things that I began with, in writing The Flamethrowers. I was reading articles about artists in the seventies who used a lot of rubber. . . .
“When I see things in the world that leap out at me I want to use them in fiction. Maybe every writer does that.”
PRAISE THE PROSE: The latest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby opened May 10. Movie man A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote: “Through this fog of glib allusion and secondhand thinking, the wistful glimmer of Fitzgerald’s prose shines like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock.”
LESS IS MORE: Andrew Pyper is the author of The Demonologist, a new horror novel. In an essay for The Wall Street Journal, Pyper listed what he considers the best in that genre: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, and The Shining by Stephen King.
“The most effective horror writing turns not on the scarer but the scaree,” wrote Pyper. “The personal motivation of the character going down into a dark cellar makes a scene frightening and involving, not what he ends up seeing—or perhaps being devoured by—at the bottom of the stairs.
“In the hands of a master, less is always more in horror.”
QUESTIONS: Did the “floodgates” really open in 2010, after J.D. Salinger died? Did people who knew the reclusive author begin to offer recollections, photos and secrets never before disclosed?
That is what Harvey Weinstein, master of the promotional tease and distributor of the documentary film, Salinger, claims. And in an interview with The New York Times, he cagily begged early viewers to help him keep the surprises secret so as not to spoil the film for others.
Will these loud drums exhaust us long before the film opens on September 6?
(Thanks to Sarah Lyall, writing in Sunday’s Times Style Magazine, we know that actor Rupert Everett, in a new memoir, Vanished Years, says that Weinstein resembles “a giant old couch that had been left in the street.”)
JEEVES TO RETURN: My town’s library still offers several of the 11 novels about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster that the late P.G. Wodehouse wrote more than 40 years ago. Now Sebastian Faulks, author of the bestselling Devil May Care (a James Bond sequel), has written Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.
The New York Times said that the Wodehouse estate had approved the project, and the comic novel will hit U.S. bookstores on November 5.
FORGET IT: John McNally is an English professor at Wake Forest University and the author of seven books. His latest is Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction.
McNally is quoted in the June issue of The Writer: “I work on a lot of different things at once, so putting something aside for a couple of years isn’t a big deal. If you’re writing every day, it adds up, and obviously, you’ll be discarding a lot of that stuff. Hopefully, some of it will gestate into something. But if I forget about a piece, then it probably should be forgotten about.”
EVERYBODY’S DOING IT: David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, said that there were 852 degree-conferring creative writing programs on U.S. campuses in 2010. In 1975 there were 79.
HER FIRST: Ingrid Thoft’s first novel is Loyalty. It features a female private investigator for a Boston law firm. Publication date is June 18.
Thoft trained and earned a certificate in private investigation because having an amateur detective as a heroine was so limiting—an amateur “can only stumble upon so many bodies.”
In a PW interview, she added, “I’m a big believer in not necessarily writing what you know but writing what you want to read about. And so I thought I’d like to read about a strong female protagonist who has a sense of humor and who often pushes the boundaries. What I like about writing Fina [her PI] is that she’s got it together in many respects, but in other ways she’s incompetent. . . . she reverts to very childlike patterns when she’s with her family.”
MUSIC-LESS: Larry McMurtry reviewed a novel, House of Earth, written by the late folksong guru Woody Guthrie, in The New York Review of Books. The manuscript, found long after Guthrie’s death in 1967, was edited by the historian Douglas Brinkley and film actor Johnny Depp.
McMurtry concluded that Guthrie’s “genius was song, and House of Earth is a bit of an oddity, though certainly a readable one. It is the apprentice work of a man who became great in his real calling, his craft, his sullen art, as the poet Dylan Thomas would say. Are we glad to have it? Sure. Would we trade any of the best songs for it? No way.”
SELF’S SHOW: Fintan O’Toole is an Irish literary figure, critic, and a lecturer at Princeton. In The New York Review of Books, he provided an insight into something that happened at the last awarding of the Man Booker prize.
O’Toole wrote that at the ceremony, “A stock photograph of the nominees . . . holding their books and wearing the forced smile of solitary authors obliged to sparkle like movie stars at a premiere, went viral on the Internet. Five of the authors, including the eventual winner Hilary Mantel, are dutifully standing in a line, with the covers of their novels delicately poised in front of the chests, just as the publishers’ publicists have, no doubt, instructed. Looming behind them, however, is the immensely tall Will Self. Not content to tower physically above his rivals, he is holding his novel, Umbrella, at the end of his fully extended right arm, so that it hovers way above their heads. In contrast to the strained cheeriness of the other novelists, Self’s long face wears the sepulchral expression of a dead-eyed zombie.”
LAUREATES: Few books of poetry make the bestseller lists and very few poets earn a living from their poetry. But recognition is growing as some cities appoint poet laureates. These include Houston, Los Angeles, Boise, Idaho; Key West, Fla., and McAllen, Texas.
The latest city to name a laureate is Fresno, Calif. That honor, for two years and $2000, went to James Tyner, 37. He is a librarian and author of a book of poetry, The Ghetto Exorcist. He wrote a poem for the occasion, and The New York Times quoted the first lines: “I am Fresno/I am the high school kid that can’t wait to get out of this town,/there’s nothing to do here,/nothing ever happens . . . ”