author interview: M. Randal O’Wain

Following my review of Meander Belt, here’s M. Randal O’Wain: A Strange Thing.

M. Randal O’Wain holds an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Originally from Memphis, Tenn., he now lives in southern West Virginia. His essays and short stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Guernica, Pinch, Booth, Hotel Amerika and storySouth, among others. He is the author of the memoir Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, a collection of essays that reflect on how a working-class boy from Memphis came to fall in love with language, reading, writing and the larger world outside of the American South. Meander Belt ($19.95) was recently released as part of the American Lives Series from the University of Nebraska.

photo: Saja Mantague

In your preface, you write about privileging verisimilitude over accuracy. What does that mean?

Accuracy is fact, right? It’s information, it’s irrefutable. But we already know that memory is inaccurate. So to ask how could you ever know what is real, what is not real, how you can depend on your own memories… to me, that’s a boring conversation. We’re trying to get to the heart and guts of the experience, the human condition, and not a verbatim account of truth.

I heard Kevin Brockmeier read from his memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, about being in the seventh grade. Inevitably, when you write a memoir that uses the techniques of fiction rather than digressive or expository techniques, people will ask this question: “Well, what about dialogue? Is your memory that good?” And his answer was amazing. He said, “You know, pretty often I get asked that question, but nobody ever asks me how I remember the sun motes falling through my living room as I’m laying on my back staring out the window. Nobody ever asks me about those specific concrete details that are just as ‘inaccurate’ as dialogue.” Because we just sort of buy those as being an acceptable form of essential truth. And he said, “I remember some dialogue, and I remember some details, but really what I’m trying to get at is what it was like to be a seventh grader, afraid to go outside or afraid to get up off that floor.”

The story presents itself as it is. Either as inhabited space, one that might require techniques of fiction, or as a cerebral space, one that you turn over as a three-dimensional object, that you work with in your mind. Then the exciting part for the reader is watching the writer turn it over. Or if it’s an inhabited space, the exciting part for the reader is watching it go by, as if it were cinema. Those are very different feelings. Meander Belt I felt the whole time in my guts. If I were to write it in a way that might come off as more essayistic and therefore more true, I suppose, it would seem so wrong. Because it wasn’t a cerebral book. It’s a bodily book.

How did this collection come to be?
I read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Harrison Fletcher Candelaria’s Descanso for My Father (also an American Lives book)–those three collections were so impressive. I just loved them. That was how I wanted to write this story. But I was convinced by an agent to turn it into a memoir. I tried for a few years, and failed terribly. When I turned in the final version of the memoir, she dropped me. She said that it wasn’t a book that she wanted to read. And that was hard. That was devastating. But it was also freeing.

I’d been publishing these essays throughout the time of working on that memoir, just to kind of stay in the game, keep my foot in the door, test things out. “Arrow of Light,” “Rain over Memphis,” “Thirteenth Street and Failing” were early, standalone essays. And then there were others I started pulling out and changing. When the agent dropped me, I was like, oh, I’m free! And I went back to the original intent, and it flowed very easily.

What I’ve learned, what I have to say over and over again to myself, is to trust myself. I gave too much of my trust to a business relationship. Someone who didn’t know my work as well I did, or my intent. Obviously we need the gatekeepers and go-betweens, like agents, but maybe we put too much trust in them. It’s just a business relationship. Not an artistic relationship.

These essays draw on intimate and often painful details. How do you care for yourself through that process?

Those details are painful at first, and then you get them on the page, and they become something else. They become something that’s beyond you. The saddest thing for me was that they didn’t hurt anymore. That the book doesn’t hurt. I miss it hurting. I extracted, mined very personal details that then were not a part of me anymore.

I don’t know if there’s ever a way to fully take care of yourself. It’s a strange thing to turn memory into art.

What did you learn in writing this book?

That I never want to write about myself again. It was so difficult. There are so many constraints, going back to your initial question about truth. I wanted to tell the truth. And that meant having to talk to family members, to talk to them again and again, to make my poor mom go over it again and again.

There are people out there who keep writing memoir! Memoir after memoir after memoir! What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you ever heard of the autobiographical novel? Make shit up! The mining of memory, that whole process is very challenging. At times it can feel like you’re just this egomaniac, and there are so many other things that a writer can look at besides themselves.

Even though I use a lot of techniques from fiction, I learned a lot about telling the truth. What it means to be vulnerable. So many times I tried to make an excuse for my behavior or apologize for my behavior, but I learned just to let it stand. To be okay with letting it stand. This was helpful for me as a writer and as a person. We’re better off if we can be honest with ourselves about how fucked up we are as well as how good we are.

Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw

This novel with style, momentum and delightfully odd characters hides a surprise emotional wallop in its middle.

Carol Anshaw (Carry the One) crafts a masterpiece of characterization and pacing with Right After the Weather, a novel of surprises. Cate, a set designer in Chicago, is a bit bumbling and hapless, but charming. A cast of similarly weird, struggling but lovable friends surrounds her. Her ex-husband, Graham, has moved in following his latest divorce, with a perfectly wonderful dog and with all his conspiracy theories, agoraphobia, fancy mail-order meals and “hemp and unbleached cotton, drawstring closures.” Her best friend Neale is a comfort, with her wholesome do-it-yourself skills and dear son. Cate’s new girlfriend, Maureen, appears to be just what she’s been looking for–financially secure, “encyclopedic in matters of fixing things”–but there’s something a bit off. Cate’s former lover Dana is the opposite: the wrong thing, but entirely, overwhelmingly magnetic. Cate’s and Neale’s parents are each complicated and intriguing on their own.

Anshaw weaves a delightful tapestry, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, as Cate and the rest fumble through their lives. Halfway through the story, however, the tone changes abruptly when trauma strikes, and Cate must learn to navigate a new version of herself. Right After the Weather is smart and filled with the sort of evocative details Cate infuses into the sets she designs. It is compelling: once invested, the reader is hard pressed to turn away (so schedule a free evening for this one!). And it is populated by charisma and natural stars.


This review originally ran in the October 4, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 fun-sized Snickers.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

I recently went to the local library and checked out a mystery novel just because I felt like it. The last time I got to do this was (I checked) October of 2016. Glorious.

So, I chose an old favorite, Michael Connelly, and just grabbed one I hadn’t read, starring a character I’d never met. LAPD Detective RenĂ©e Ballard works the night shift, or the “late show,” as punishment for raising a complaint when she was sexually assaulted by a superior. (Timely and timeless, this story.) One night at the station she finds a stranger rummaging through a filing cabinet whose lock he’s just picked; hand on her gun, she asks him for ID, and that’s how she meets mostly-retired Detective Harry Bosch. I immediately felt right at home.

Chapters alternate between the close third-person perspectives of Bosch and Ballard as they team up, rather off the record, to take on a cold case. In the Bosch tradition, it’s a case no one especially cared about even at the time, as the murder victim was one of those deemed society’s trash; but as we know, with Bosch, “everybody counts or nobody counts.” Action, high adrenaline, close calls, a twisty case, and problems with authority, all set to a dramatic and unmistakable LA/Hollywood backdrop: this is classic Connelly and what I came for. Nothing much has changed and I am so glad. Funny how the mystery novels I love can sort of do the same thing over and over again and still entertain me. I hope Bosch lives forever. (Also, it was nice that I was relatively fresh off the Bosch television series, especially since a recent case was referenced here.)


Rating: 7 green flight suits.

movie: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Transcendent, not that I’m surprised.

This documentary of the life of Toni Morrison was released shortly before her death, which has helped it make an even bigger splash, although it was doing fine anyway. My dear friend Liz told me I needed to see it, which pushed me further (I was already interested). I was so glad to get a chance to see it locally at a micro-theatre here in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

For starters, check out that image above. The collage of Toni’s face is built up in an opening sequence that shows many faces of Toni Morrison as she ages, and as a portrayal of the creative process I found it moving and thought-provoking. The rest of the movie followed suit. I loved that they mostly let Toni speak for herself. A “present” Toni sits against a blank backdrop and speaks directly into the camera throughout the film. She is dressed in black, white, and gray, highlighting her beautiful gray hair. She speaks with humor and wisdom, and as she talks, we see images and film clips from her life. Friends and contemporaries including celebrities (Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey), other artists (Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley), and college professors (Farah Griffin, David Carrasco) also speak to the camera; a voiceover reads from a few articles, like nasty racist criticisms of Morrison’s early work. But mostly it is Toni’s own voice that tells of her life, from the melting-pot steel town on Lake Erie where she was raised (Lorain, Ohio) to Howard University to Cornell, to teaching, marriage and divorce, raising two boys, and her influential career as an editor at Random House… and of course writing 11 world-changing novels in 45 years, along with children’s books, short fiction, drama, nonfiction, and an introduction to The Oxford Mark Twain‘s edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I’d love to see.

The impression of Toni Morrison that I take away from this film is an entirely take-no-shit, strong woman who we might describe as brave, but I think her own view would be that she was not so much a brave woman as just doing what needed to be done, and what was right, without thinking twice about it. Of course that is brave, but it seems to have just come so naturally to her.

It was nice to see her celebrated not only as an earth-shatteringly talented, singular artist, but also as an incisive, gifted editor, who dragged Angela Davis’s memoir out of her and put Muhammad Ali in his place during the editing of his. I enjoyed the story of her Nobel Prize and the delightful party she so enjoyed in Sweden. In short, I found a rich and rounder portrait here than I think I’d seen of Toni before now.

Although I knew it before, I feel again what a loss we suffered this year when she died, and I feel how lucky we are to have her work in the world. I’m so glad I saw this movie. Don’t miss it. There are lots of ways to watch at home, so you’ve no excuse.


Rating: 9 dolls.

Shatter the Night by Emily Littlejohn

Note: I received an advanced copy for review. This book publishes on December 10, 2019.

Quickie review here. In a nutshell, dialogue and writing in general were very poor, but the suspense of the plot kept me going through to the end, which fact still surprises me.

This is the fourth in the Detective Gemma Monroe series, and the first I’ve tried. I won’t bother with any more in this series, not with the likes of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, and Tana French mysteries in the world. It took me just a few pages to laugh out loud at stilted dialogue (one of my pet peeves: two characters who know each other very well, discussing a third person they know very well, with first and last name and character’s background in dialogue – ugh!), and I continued to note less-than-credible police procedure and other basic factual matter all the way through this book. (Vampire bats in Colorado? A quick Google search says no.) These weaknesses – huge, glaring, obnoxious weaknesses – continued to annoy me from start to finish, and this is why I did not write a review for Shelf Awareness.

But I read the whole book! And you know I am quick to put down a book I don’t like and walk away forever. So, kudos to Littlejohn for a plot that kept me turning the pages (and probably a nod to the fact that I’m a bit stressed and it felt good to escape into something mindless). I enjoyed the mystery aspect itself, and there were enough goofy characters (possible suspects) that I didn’t guess the solution too far before Detective Monroe herself did. The ending, following the denouement, turned weak again: we took a hard left turn into sappy romance, even though the romance had itself looked a bit endangered earlier in the novel. Ah, well.

A far from perfect book, and one I might have put down at another time in my reading life, but credit for a plot that kept me til the end. Do I recommend this book? Not really.


Rating: 5 times the cops were shocked and called someone a ‘bastard.’

in a surprising departure: television

This post is long overdue, I guess, but it occurred to me rather late in the game to tell you about television series. During the van trip, strangely, I got into watching TV series that I could get through Amazon Prime.

This blog began, back in 2011, as a way for me to keep track of my reading for my own sake. I’m deeply grateful that other people read it and appreciate it, too. But on some level it remains a record I keep for myself, and so here we are. I wanted to remember what shows I’ve watched, and which ones I’ve especially liked.

Bones

The one that got me completely hooked is Bones, a mystery-per-episode (or often several) crime-solving drama series based in the fictional Jeffersonian Institute and starring a world-famous forensic anthropologist. It’s fairly silly, and relies too heavily on the sexual tension of a certain couple that we wait way too many seasons to see actually hook up. But I was thoroughly, entirely taken in; I watched all 246 episodes with relish and and someday, if laid up for months with nothing to do, I may watch them again. It’s goofy but I love it. (Based on the Temperance Brennan series of novels by Kathy Reichs, which I have not read, so there’s another project.)

Mystery series based on book series: you will note a theme. Also, lots of Brits.

I was quite impressed by Bosch, based on Michael Connelly‘s novels starring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, which I have loved since I was a teenager. They’ve done a good job of capturing the title character, and the soundtrack (based on Harry’s love of jazz) is quite good. I’ll be on the lookout for future seasons; well done, Amazon.

Jackson Brodie of Case Histories

Case Histories is based on the novels of Kate Atkinson which star Jackson Brodie. Set and filmed in Edinburgh, this series features an excellent soundtrack of female country singer-songwriters (seriously, I would follow this show just for the music); Edinburgh itself is compelling and beautiful, but it’s also easy to fall for Jackson himself, who is a runner as well as a detective whose life is filled with ill-conceived sexual liaisons, a delightfully salty assistant, and the cutest, most precocious, wittiest young daughter imaginable, as well as interesting cases. Give me more Case Histories! And these are books I’ll need to read, obviously. (It’s always nice to get a two-for-one like that.)

Unforgotten is a modern London-set series which I appreciate for its two lead detectives, DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan. They are a likeable pair whose lives feel realistically imperfect, something not always true of our stars. Not everyone on this show is supermodel-beautiful, which again, is nice for reality’s sake. The narrative structure of each episode is interesting and a bit unusual: we switch around between the lives of various characters, including Cassie and Sunny but also including a number of others who at first have no apparent connection to the case at hand – although, of course, they will. I’ll keep watching this one.

Seattle PD’s Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder of The Killing

The Killing is based on a Danish series; this one is set in Seattle. It may seem formulaic at this point that there our two lead detectives are a man and a woman with perhaps a hint of sexual tension? but it still feels original here; I like these two and would continue with them, given the chance.

DCI Banks is another British mystery series, set in the more-or-less present, and one that kept me occupied for a time, but my rating would be only so-so. I found the characters I was meant to identify with only mildly appealing; I was often frustrated with them, and (slight spoiler) killing off one of them only served to engage me less. Meh. (Maybe it was just the one guy’s voice as he plaintively cries “Annie!” over and over that got to me.)

The ABC Murders is based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and stars John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. I’m sure he did a fine job, but I was raised on David Suchet’s Poirot and it is too late for me to convert to a new version. While I suspect I would still enjoy reading Christie (a theory I should test!), this onscreen version dragged on. It felt dated by unusually slow pacing, but was made in 2018. Another series that was okay but not one I’m wild about.

DC Endeavor Morse and DCI Fred Thursday of Endeavor

Set in 1960s Oxford, Endeavor has my heart. I’m just in the middle of this one now, and I’m devoted to the title character, DC Morse (first name Endeavor. Which is weird, but not as weird as Hieronymus Bosch). This serves as a prequel to the long-running 1980s-90s series Inspector Morse; I have not seen that one. DC Morse is a prodigy within the department, but his odd methods, failure to bow to authority, and general nerdiness don’t play well with his superintendent. He does have a good relationship with DI Fred Thursday, and that relationship’s development seems to be part of the arc of the series overall. I’m having a good time with this one.

A few outliers are not mysteries.

Catastrophe is a comedy about a several-night stand between a visiting American businessman and an Irish primary school teacher living in London which results in a pregnancy and, surprisingly, marriage. A second child follows the first as the couple turns out to quite like each other, but (yes) catastrophes follow one upon another. Silly but good fun.

My Mother and Other Strangers caught me with its name, and this Masterpiece Theatre production has a charming, evocative, specific setting in a small Irish village during World War II. American soldiers are stationed in a village that does not appreciate their presence. The series is narrated (minimally) by an old man, years after the fact; he is the small son of the mother in question, and this is the story of his family (mom, dad, two kids) firstly, and of the village. I love the details of time and place, the sense of a small specific setting and its place in much larger historic events. The backward-looking perspective has elements of elegy and of nostalgia, and that mystery of the mother–she is present, but enigmatic–is compelling.

The Durrells in Corfu

And then The Durrells in Corfu, an absolutely addictive series based on three memoirs by Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods. (More books to read! If they’re half as loveable as this series, I’m in.) British widow Louisa Durrell decides all of a sudden to move her four children from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu, where the financially strained family will have a better chance of scraping by. Antics ensue. Corfu has no electricity, there are animals everywhere, and the Greeks vary in their willingness to accept strangers. But delightful characters abound. The four Durrell kids (ranging from teens to early twenties) are a hoot; the youngest (Gerald himself) adopts every creature he can put his hands on. I would follow this series anywhere.

Old news, but in the interest of completeness: I am up to date on The Walking Dead which I have long loved, although yes, they frustrate me more every season. I think I’m in to the end, but the producers seem determined to test the bounds of my love. And I’ve seen all of Breaking Bad, but had mixed feelings. I found Walter White a little less ambiguous than I think he was intended to be – I didn’t like him enough (even within the bounds of ambivalence, and I do love ambivalence) to be entirely patient with the extended length of his torture of the more-loveable Jesse.

What excellent series am I missing that would fit into this list?

Galley Love of the Week: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

Be among the first to read The Book of V. by Anna Solomon, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Anna Solomon (The Little Bride; Leaving Lucy Pear) offers a scalding, gripping story of three intertwined lives in The Book of V. The biblical Queen Esther, a 1970s Rhode Island senator’s wife and a former academic stay-at-home mom in 2000s Brooklyn have more in common than one might think. Holt editor-in-chief Serena Jones comments on “how similar–though they are actually separated by centuries–these characters’ stories feel, and how they converge and clash over the same themes. Agent Julie Barer observed how women’s lives have–and really more profoundly, have not–changed since biblical times.” Solomon’s storytelling is seamless and deeply engaging; readers will be living with Esther, Vee and Lily long after closing these pages.

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. View this edition here.

%d bloggers like this: