Steve Davenport is the Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois. He’s the author of two books of poetry: Uncontainable Noise (2006) and Overpass (2012). His “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” published first in Black Warrior Review and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His chapbook Nine Poems and Three Fictions won one of The Literary Review’s 2007-2008 Charles Angoff Awards for Outstanding Contributions in a Volume Year. Steve’s literary criticism includes work on Jack Kerouac and Richard Hugo.
Ron Cooper: Nice to see you again, Steve. Tell us a bit about where you grew up, were educated, etc.
Steve Davenport: Glad to be here, Ron.
As a pre-TV child (television arrived in Calgary in the early 50s, about ten years after it appeared in the U.S.), radio dramas fed my imagination: Boston Blackie; Suspense Theatre; and The Green Hornetcome immediately to mind. Though they provided the plot and dialogue, I was able to supply the images myself, far more dramatic than what any TV director could create. In my young mind, Boston Blackie was the white knight in spite of a name that implied otherwise. Evenings spent shivering in front of a radio, shivering from glorious fear and not cold. The room crackling with drama—suspense. And I was an important participant: the program needed myimagination to give it life.
At some point in those early years, someone sold my parents a set of the Books of Knowledge.
In the movie The Wife, a jaded middle-aged female novelist takes aside a talented young writer at a Smith College reading and says to her: “Don’t do it.” The aspiring student writer stands her ground, insisting that “a writer needs to write.” The older woman sighs. “A writer needs to be read,” she says.
I understand both sentiments. A writer does need to write. But, oh, how often it feels pointless, when publishing is so hard, when all-too-soon even the published book feels as impactful as a rock settling to the bottom of the sea!
Writers face an inordinate amount of rejection as they pursue their craft. I’ve often thought there ought to be workshops at writers’ conferences on how to handle rejection letters. If we’ve been sending out queries frequently, we must have developed a thick skin or sense of humor. As my friend, a realtor says, the best response to rejection is to say, “Next?” Here are some truths about rejection.
My friend Robby managed her family restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. When they needed another server, she interviewed several and was particularly impressed by a woman named Sue. Sue was hired, but after several weeks, Robby noticed Sue wasn’t earning the tips she should. After a discussion, Sue turned in her notice and left.
Although I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, I have never joined a book club. Until now.
In years past, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the reading pace of a club or the selections wouldn’t appeal to me and I would miss out on reading books I really wanted to read. But then I uprooted my life, moved to a new state, and decided to be open to whatever reasonable opportunities came my way. One of the first opportunities I saw was a book club in my new community, so I plunged right in.
Now here I am, trying to understand the workings of my particular book club and how to be a good contributor.
What book is top on your bucket list of books? What book have you always wanted to read but somehow never have? And what book would you feel incomplete without reading?
The English publication of the volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle coincides with a renewed interest in “auto-fiction,” also known as the autobiographical novel. While I have read and enjoyed several of these works of auto-fiction, my favorite is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which seemed to draw on some auto-fiction elements, but also used other literary devices such as image patterning and developing character arcs, while incorporating motifs of class, politics, art, motherhood, friendship, and feminism.
Since finishing the Neapolitan series I’ve found myself wanting to read more novels that span generations, placing themselves in historical context, in which history itself (just as Ferrante’s working class post-war Italy) becomes a character. Three recent novels fit this bill, and I recommend them to anyone desiring epic historical novels that educate as well as entertain.
Sir Vidia, the great Trinidad-born, British novelist and travel writer is dead. You know he won the Nobel Prize, and the Booker, and I assume you’ve read his work. I admired it without loving it, but its importance is unquestionable: he’s one of the most influential of post-colonial writers. Paul Theroux, Sir Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis all owe him debts. I don’t know his entire oeuvre, so I’ll mention only his books that I do: A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. More knowledgeable critics than I have eulogised his work, so I needn’t do so here. What I want to talk about is what you’ve also heard: that he was a cad and a rotter, to use the sort of quaint Edwardian terms his father might have used.
1954, offshore from Bikini atoll: Never mind radiation, naval crew, bored by days of waiting for a hydrogen bomb test, were taken ashore afterward to swim and drink so much beer that many couldn’t jump from the dingy to the hatch of the ship on their return, and their drunken bodies had to be piled en mass into netting and raised by a crane to the deck. So reports self-aware, precocious young naval officer Bill, a college graduate from Illinois. “We were a military attachment aboard a naval supply ship that had civilian officers…I chatted my head off with the second mate, who sometimes took his duty on hot days wearing only shorts. Not bad at all. But he ran a poor second to the third mate, who was really sexy.
Shabby row houses lined this block of Maryland Avenue, and a small sign identified one of them as The Dime Museum. Parking was easy—a space almost in front of the museum. We walked up to the door and knocked. We waited. An older man creaked it open and stepped aside to let us enter.
‘”That’ll be five dollars each,” he said. We dug the money out of our pockets as we stared at the overlarge coffin on the floor. Inside stretched a nine-foot-tall Egyptian mummy. “All fake,” the man said. We assumed he was the owner, curator, and docent for this odd little museum.
The Dime Museum in Baltimore closed awhile back. I hated to say good-bye to this unique bit of American history.
Is Poetry Necessary?
As a poet, I recognize poetry’s tremendous importance to a society. Still, I can get caught up in the complexities of modern life: I have classes to teach, papers to read and grade, writing projects demanding equal attention, a family to care for. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that poetry is as necessary to our well being as food, though when I say this to my students, they look at me skeptically.
Many have trouble with poetry, and I discuss this difficulty with them. “Why,” I ask, “in a class of twenty literate, intelligent young men and women do only two or three read or write poetry—even occasionally?”
They think about the question, and then a few raise their hands tentatively; they try to articulate why poetry is hard for them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with my life,” says a female business major from Hong Kong.
We’ve had plenty of lively meetings at which some members expound, politely of course, on why a book isn’t at all good and others on why it’s stunningly beautiful. The only dissension this time was over which character was the most interesting, which scene the most beautiful, or which description of music the most memorable. There were many to choose from.
In every chapter Joyce names at least one composer, composition, singer, or songwriter. I counted about 80 total in the book, ranging from Pérotin’s Beata Viscera of the 13th century to Michael Jackson’s Bad of 1987, the year before most of the book’s action takes place.
I’ve been hearing the term “aspirational” a lot lately. Aspirational recycling, aspirational eating, aspirational shopping, and so forth. “Aspirational” is a term applied to anything you do more out of hope than effectiveness. The other day when I confronted the stacks of books on my nightstand and environs, I realized that aspirational reading was also a thing.
And I was most definitely an aspirational reader.
There are so many beautifully written and compelling pieces of fiction in the world, I will never read them all. So I try to focus. One way I do that is to think, “What’s my tribe?” This is also helpful in choosing which Netflix or Prime series to binge on, hence, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is at the top of my list. Why? Because it’s about mid-20thCentury New York, and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has a thing for playing Broadway cast albums on the soundtrack. (If you don’t know the difference between a cast album and a soundtrack, let me Google that for you…)
So, yes, one of my “tribes” is “The Tribe of the Show Queens.” Now, calm down, you don’t need to be a gay man to be a show queen (although it helps).
We’ve all heard someone say that the right book appears at the right time. That sounds mystical, as if there were a benevolent deity planning every detail our lives, which I think the Holocaust disproves. But it may be that the Taoist notion of simply paying attention to the universe, and let’s say ‘using the current’ (rather than the horrible cliché ‘going with the flow’) comes closer to what happens. In any case, I was very low, partly because I couldn’t write—at least I wasn’t writing anything worth a damn. Then by happenstance I came across Carol Bly’s Beyond the Workshop, a book I’ve owned for years, I believe, but had never read. And lo, it was exactly the book I needed.
On June 1, my novel While You Were Gone was published by C&R Press, which means I should be promoting it. Even though this is my third novel (and fifth book) in my last post, I discussed how, for me at least, writing does not get easier, as each project brings its own challenges for promotion as well.
All of my books have been published by small presses, which means a limited promotion and marketing budget. All of the presses I have published with did send out review copies (from 20 to 100) to a variety of publications; however, I usually only end up with a half dozen reviews best. Part of this is because publications (unless they are specifically geared to small presses) tend to publish reviews of books from larger presses.
Most of us writers want to be published, but more than that, we want validation as a writer. If our book is accepted by an agent and then by a name-brand publisher, we achieve some validation unless the reviewers ring in with a different opinion.
The harsh truth is that agents are confronted by hundreds or thousands of queries a week. They may have a toothache or feel particularly jaded the morning yours arrives, or they might be looking for the latest trendy possibility, a quick sale, a young genius that will have a long life in their stable, or dozens of other reasons that have nothing to do with your book but result in refusal, nonetheless. Agents have been wrong many times—and publishers even more.
Garrison Somers and I have been friends since we met as undergraduates at the College of Charleston (SC) nearly 40 years ago. He was/is a couple of years older than I and soon became a big brother to me in many matters, not the least of which was, and continues to be, literary. After graduation he returned to his childhood home of New Jersey (by the way, his mother was from my home state of SC) and is primarily responsible for my attending Rutgers for my Ph.D. In addition to a writer and (in what I know he will say is by far his most important role) an extraordinary father to two spectacular daughters, he is the editor of The Blotter, a journal like no other, which you can find at http://www.blotterrag.com/
Ron Cooper: Garry, thanks for hanging out with me today.
I’ve gone bonkers over Per Petterson’s writing. Born in Norway in 1952, Petterson was a librarian and a bookseller before he published his first work in 1987, a volume of short stories. His third novel, Out Stealing Horses, became an international best seller. Since then, he has published three other novels, which have established his reputation as one of Norway’s best fiction writers.
I’ve now read all of his books, and, as a writer, I’ve learned a great deal from him about technique, especially point of view and his use of time. I Refuse, Pettersen’s most recent novel, captures the main characters’ lifetime in a compressed space.
September 2006 reunites Tommy and Jim, devoted friends in their youth, after they’ve been separated for 35 years.
In May, as Ireland voted to end its ban on abortion, I thought back to the Ireland of my youth and to Edna O’Brien, the Irish-born novelist whose vivid and unself-conscious description of sexuality shocked her native land.
When I was twenty-one, I traveled from New York to Europe with a college friend. The last week of the trip was the most exciting and the most terrifying for her. We were to visit her extended family in Ireland and meet her boyfriend from home, who was on vacation with his family. She worried that the garda, the Irish police, would somehow find the birth control pills she’d hidden in her purse, or the hotel wardens would catch her and her boyfriend sharing a bed.
Last January in the midst of a blizzard, my toddler grandson and I found the only safe space near Burlington, VT area: an indoor mall. Pushing his stroller through the corridors, zigzagging through clacking toys, overpriced kiddie togs, and alluring fast food, I remembered the many hours I’d spent walking mall floors with my own children. I actually think my older daughter’s first word may have been “mall.”
And then, after exhausting the commericial clatter, we saw it: a library!
The recent demise of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whether it turns out to be temporary or permanent, may lead us to consider what criteria are taken into consideration for literary prizes, and indeed for judging works of literature at all.
A perusal of the list of winners of the Nobel from 1901 onwards makes it clear that the prize has often been awarded for political reasons—the clearest example is Winston Churchill’s winning it after the Second World War—and often for quasi-political reasons, such as the understandable and in itself laudable desire to recognise the work of writers working in lesser-known languages like Hungarian, Greek or Swedish. (Sweden has eight winners of the prize, perhaps unsurprisingly, which makes it the best represented country of all, proportionate to its population.) I am not suggesting that the Swedes have done worse than anyone else would have.
Does anyone care what someone else is reading? Possibly not, but other than serendipity, choices are usually meaningful and those meanings might prove informative. “So here goes nothing.”
- Dennis Lehane, Coronado (2006). Lehane is one of my favorite contemporary authors. In addition to being best sellers and earning critical acclaim, his novels Mystic River and Shutter Island were made into excellent movies. Coronado consists of five novella length stories and a two-act play. In this thin volume, Lehane demonstrates why his stories are so compelling. The characters are those we don’t often meet, but yet link back to American culture and tell us something about ourselves.
- Rick Ollerman, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals (2017). An analysis of a particular subset of mystery novels from the 1950s through the 1990s, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals consists of inside baseball.
Bad Weather Doesn’t Stop Book Lovers
In the opening hours of the Ninth Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, the skies were an ugly steel gray and the precipitation shifted across mist, sprinkle, drizzle, and steady rain — and still the book lovers came out in force. Sporting umbrellas and rain ponchos, they were ready to hear their favorite authors read from and discuss books at the different literary tents, browse the new and used bookstores and independent booksellers, get their books signed while chatting with those favorite authors, grab something tasty from the food vendors, and go back again for more.
Of the many book festivals that the Baltimore-Washington area now enjoys, Gaithersburg is my personal favorite. Though it often draws over twenty thousand attendees and attracts many nationally known authors, it still has a very intimate feeling.
In April I attended the 30th anniversary of Malice Domestic, an annual conference of mystery authors and fans held in Bethesda, MD. I’ve liked mysteries ever since I discovered Nancy Drew and realized there were books out there that dealt with hidden clues and buried treasure and lost diamonds and deadly secrets. Nancy Drew was always learning new things that played into the mystery to be solved. This planted the seed for lifelong learning in me. Mysteries also offer the adventure of exploring interesting jobs. Archaeologist, forensic anthropologist, B&B owner, apple farmer, bookstore owner, you name it, there’s a mystery series featuring someone in the job, often written by someone who held that job. When I’ve tried to give up reading mysteries for more “serious” literature, my life lost that special spark.