Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
The Michigan book tour for Wire to Wire covered 2,700 miles over 16 days and was full of amazing moments. I got the rental car stuck in the sand at the edge of the Big Lake. Around midnight in Lansing, I watched a bartendress leap in the air and catch a firefly. And I spent every day with fans (of Wire to Wire and of Seger), friends, and family. Except for the skunk I hit in the last hour of the trip, it couldn’t have been better.
One memorable moment occurred early on at Horizon Books in Traverse City. Given how long I worked on the book, someone asked if the first draft had anything in common with the last. I happened to have grabbed a very early chapter while I was packing, but I hadn’t really looked at it much.
When I opened the folder, I was stunned by the date: 7/15/85 – exactly 26 years and one day prior to the Horizon reading. The chapter is labeled “Comments from Stone Workshop,” because it’s the version I took to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Along with 12 other writers, I was in a weeklong workshop with Robert Stone that year.
Obviously, as a beginning writer, I focused on rhythm and didn’t worry much about meaning. I wanted to get the sound right. The writing is loud—hewn through time kinda makes me cringe, and who knows what that line about the president means. It's all pretty dramatic. But it’s the beat, not the words, that the two versions have in common. The cadence of the long second paragraph is very close to the feel of Harp’s long, poetic freight rap on page 69 of the finished book.
Fittingly, the only phrase that’s word-for-word the same is “the top of the middle.” In the manuscript and in the book, it refers (rather obliquely) to the upper Midwest states—the top of the middle of the map. But it’s really the name of an Elvin Jones album. In those early days, I used to listen to The Top of the Middle before and while I wrote. To Jones, I think the phrase referred to a place in the beat that he liked the best. In any case, I was clearly more interested in how the syllables fell than in telling a story.
My note at the top of the page records Robert Stone’s reaction: “With this style, never cut loose of precision. The more poetic, the greater the need to be precise, so that every syllable of poetry pays off in meaning.”
It took me a long time to learn how to do that—to the extent that I have—but the Pt. Townsend workshop was the beginning.
The other life lesson I learned at that conference was the old saying, “Beer before whiskey, pretty risky.” After the Horizon reading, I put that wisdom to good use and went straight to the harder stuff. The table was crowded with friends, and the dinner and drinking was as good as it gets.
Drunk on words or just drunk at the Comet Tavern in Seattle, circa 1985: I got a dream, do you wanna be in my dream? Alejandro Escovedo's "Tender Heart."
Posted in Wire to Wire
This weekend, you could celebrate independence by lighting a firecracker. Or you could go to an Indie Bookstore and buy a book. Or both, actually – it’s not an either/or choice.
One reason indie bookstores rule is economics—money you spend in local stores tends to stay in your community. And supporting local booksellers is an excellent source of good karma and may also improve your sex life.
Plus, it's very likely you’ll find some great books that the major chains might not carry. Such as, well, Wire to Wire.
Some specifics: Last week, a big stack of books went out the door after my reading at Powell’s Books. (Thanks, all!) The Multnomah Country library has 50-plus holds on Wire to Wire. The Oregonian ran a prominent and very positive review at the end of June. Independent bookstores all over the country are carrying it. But you can’t buy the book at the Borders in the town near where I live.
And it’s not the fault of the local Borders—they’d like to carry it. But that decision is made at corporate HQ in some distant, unknown city where faceless…wait a sec, Borders’ HQ is in Ann Arbor, Michigan! Hey, Borders—Michigan native here, story set in the Wolverine state, founder of the Segerfile. Hello??
But the point is not to beat up on Borders or the other national stores. I’m sure an economist would say that they play an important role, because economists will say anything once you get them liquored up with a little cash. Okay, wait – the point is that freedom without books might be impossible, and the best source of those books is the independent bookstore near you. So find one, and celebrate the Fourth by buying a book. Mine if you want, or any other.
And maybe skip the M-80s. You’re gonna need those fingers for turning pages
UPDATE: August 29, 2011
Well, obviously Border's decision not to stock my book had disastrous consequences for them. And while they were going under, I was going around the Northwest and my home state of Michigan visiting some indie bookstores that are very much alive. Here are a few photos from some of the book stores.
Powell's Books in Portland, OR and Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, WA
Schulers Books in Okemos, MI, Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo, MI, and Horizon Books in Traverse City, MI
Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA; The Book Store, Frankfort, MI, with Jesse Burkhardt
Third Street Books in McMinnville, OR; Village Books in Bellingham, WA
It's the Fourth of July: I wanna hear a little revolution out there. The MC5, “Ramblin’ Rose.”
The worst part of any bookstore reading is the moment right after the author says, “I’d be happy to answer any questions.” The painful silence. The awkward attempt to avoid eye contact. I’ve experienced this firsthand. As an audience member, I always feel like I ought to have an intelligent, insightful question at the ready—after all, I’m a fan of whoever’s reading, or I wouldn’t be there. But in the face of that silence, my mind goes blank.
To solve this for you when I read at Powell’s City of Books (Thursday, 7:30 pm, downtown Portland), I’ve prepared the following aid. Just choose any of the questions off the list below and practice them in the bathroom mirror until they feel spontaneous. If you need to write the key words on your hand, that’s fine. No one’s expecting a professional performance. The important thing is to be yourself.
Wire to Wire Questions
1. Is Northern Michigan really that full of losers?
2. How did you learn to ride freights? Would you consider teaching others?
3. What kind of drug is a "Smiling O" exactly, and where can I get some?
4. Did it actually take you 20 years to write Wire to Wire, or would it be more accurate to say that it took the publishing industry 20 years to get around to seeing the value in your book?
5. Which character in Wire to Wire are you most like—Rose or Lane?
6. When robots attack, is it better to respond with logic or brute force? (Wait—skip this. Wrong book.)
7. Do you have any charts and graphs that explain why Wire to Wire is not really a crime novel?
8. Have you secretly designated a well known, contemporary writer as your rival, and has that other writer won any major prizes lately? What does this desperate need for a rival say about you?
9. Wire to Wire has yet to be included on any of those bogus "Best Books of Summer" lists that the mainstream media use to plug books that are already getting tons of publicity and need no further promotion. Does this mean summer might be canceled?
10. Will it seem selfish if I buy multiple copies of Wire to Wire? I'd like to have a spare in case I lose one.
Bonus Question: Is Tin House the coolest publisher in the world, or what?
Better get practicing. See you on Thursday!
Hey, Mr. Powell's Marquee Man: Put my name up in lights, 'cause it's a miracle I'm standing here today: "Real Mean Bottle" by Bob Seger.
Posted in Wire to Wire
The Northwest is home to a lot of great bookstores, and I've had the pleasure of visiting four of them in the past weeks. A special thanks to everyone who joined me.
Third Street Books in McMinnville was a special treat. It's a wonderful store and a great place for my first solo event. Iron Legs Burk, my freight-riding friend, showed up to surprise me. Ears Two of Segerfile fame was there as well. There were decades of history in the room, along with new friends. And I made some charts and graphs to explain why Wire to Wire isn't really a crime novel, but an homage to one.
Elliott Bay Books, the next stop, is now on Capitol Hill -- right next to the Comet Tavern, where I spent many evenings and a morning or two when I lived in Seattle. Writers from the Wet Dog and Touchstone writers groups came by. In effect, those two groups were my MFA program as I began Wire to Wire.
Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park was new to me. It's a fabulous store, made even better by old friends from Antioch College and Seattle. We closed the place down, then stood in the parking lot talking until the police cruised by.
And Village Books in the Fairhaven section of Bellingham is an amazing place -- especially when you stay a block away at Fairhaven Village Inn, where they also love books and authors. Before and after, I traded stories of freights, writing, and Puget Sound with a friend from my Seattle days.
Next up is Powell's -- Thursday, June 30, 7:30. The City of Books is a highlight of any book tour. When you live in Portland, it's also the place you dream about. Come join me if you can.
Play some Live Bullet: The Wire to Wire tour continues in Michigan in July. "I've Been Working."
I’ve been guest-blogging on a lot of sites lately. Here are links to some of the places I’ve been.
Powell’s Books – Five posts for Portland’s legendary bookstore.
Book on the Tracks
Is it dangerous? That's the question people ask when they find out I spent a large part of my youth hopping freight trains and traveling in boxcars across the Midwest, through the western U.S., and across Canada. Read more.
Crime and Lowlifes
A friend regrets to inform me that she won't be reading Wire to Wire. Tip: Never say that to a guy who's got a blog. Read more.
Burning Down the House
Imagine a world where sex & money are out of control. Wait - how is that fiction?? Read more.
They say I've spent 20 years writing Wire to Wire. Really? That long? I guess it's possible — I lose track of time and get distracted easily. What I do know is that there’s little, maybe nothing, that I've worked at harder in my life. Along the way, many people helped. Here are four you should meet. Read more.
Made in Michigan — Why Seger's music means so much to me. Read more.
NW Booklovers – Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association
What You Need Most
One summer when I was visiting Michigan, a friend invited me to stay. I'd already spent six weeks in his guest room, gathering material. "Your book's all about Northern Michigan," he said. "Why not just stay here?" Read more.
Largehearted Boy – Book Notes
I remember exactly where I was when I decided to quit my job and write a book: at a Prince concert in Washington state. Can you hear the Purple One change my life in the Tacoma Dome? – "I know, I know times are changing / it's time we all reached out for something new / that means you too." Read more.
Scott Sparling, meet NYC.
The first scene of Wire to Wire takes place on 23rd Street in New York. A musician plays “Purple Haze,” but without an amp. I can picture it pretty clearly, but I’ve never actually been to that intersection. Read more.
Shelf Awareness, Book Brahmin – Interview
Q: What books did your high school girlfriend give you?
A: I remember three: The Kama Sutra, Siddhartha and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. I didn't know what to make of the Kama Sutra with all its lingam and yoni stuff. Read more.
My Book, My Movie
I’m stumped. I have no idea who should play the main characters in Wire to Wire. Here’s what I do know. Read more.
What Writers Are Reading
When I finished Wire to Wire, I wanted to catch up on what others in the Northwest were writing. Read more.
The Page 69 Test
Page 69 is actually one of my favorite pages in the book – seriously – and one I almost always include in readings. Read more.
Seattleite Magazine – Interview
"When I was living in Seattle, I read an interview where Dylan said, if you want to create something, go find the electricity. I was working for Seattle City Light, but that was clearly the wrong kind of electricity." Read more.
Book Divas – Ask A New Author
Three rejected titles for Wire to Wire and some good writing advice. Read more.
A social media post on using social media. Read more.
My rejected PR tactics and other advice: Read more.
That's the list for now, but it's bound to grow. While Wire to Wire is on the shelves, I'll be blogging until they make me stop.
Let me up on the stand. And let me "Kick Out the Jams."
Posted in Wire to Wire
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- My Essay on Bloom: No Other Way Out
- Playlist in LargeHearted Boy
- A Book Brahmin Essay for Shelf Awareness
- Powell's Blog: Sex & Money
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- An Interview with Kathleen Alcala
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- W2W Essay for Northwest Book Lovers
- W2W Essay for Poets & Writers
- America Reads: Page 69
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- America Reads: What I'm Reading
- Interview with Be Portland
- The Oregonian: Where I Write