Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
On a summer night in 1989, the freight-riding careers of Spider Rider and Iron Legs Burk came to an end in McMinnville, Oregon. We were two Michigan kids who lived near the tracks and fell in love with trains in the early ‘70s. We both ended up – or ended up so far – in Oregon.
Nights and weekends, when we were young – when we should have been chasing girls, drinking beer, or stealing cars – we’d steal away to the railroad tracks instead and grab ladder rides. One day, we got in a boxcar and rode a couple hundred miles down to Elkhart, Indiana and back. When I got home, and my parents asked what I'd been up to, I answered, "Hangin' out with Deeg." That was his nickname. Freight stories were shared on a need-to-know basis back then, and our parents didn't need to know. They certainly didn't need to know our freight-hopping names.
After that, we were hooked, and we rode everywhere. Durand, Owosso, St. Paul, East Dubuque, Minot, Havre, Yakima, Spokane, Eureka, Petaluma, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Barstow, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, Denver, Grand Junction, Omaha – more towns than I can remember, though they're written in our journals. And all across Canada: Kamloops and Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat and…well, the unit trains, the one-a-days, the slugs, and the hotshots. Any train with fresh orders and hoses hooked, we rode.
By 1989, things had changed. We both had jobs. Jesse was married and I was about to be. Boxcars were in short supply, replaced by container trains, and empties were rarer still. And we had lost a step or two, or at least I had.
But one day, Jesse – Iron Legs – put out the call, as he always did. One more trip. Portland to McMinnville. Leave work early. Meet me on the bridge. I said yes, as I usually did.
We rode south and west all afternoon and into the evening, and when we jumped out in McMinnville, we might have said something like, "Maybe that’ll be the last time ever." If that's what we said, we probably didn’t really believe it. But here it is, twenty-plus years later, and our freight-riding days seem to be done. You never know, though – we’ll both be in Michigan this summer, and if Jesse sees a slow-moving freight, well...I'll keep you posted. As things stand now, though, McMinnville was the end of the road.
So perhaps it's fitting that on June 16, at Third Street Books, McMinnville will be the beginning of the road for the Wire to Wire bookstore tour. Sure, there were a couple of warm-up dates out east last month. I read with a group of terrific Tin House writers at WORD in Brooklyn and the KGB Bar in Manhattan. Good places to loosen up and test things out.
But McMinnville will be the first Oregon date, and the first time I read solo. Not even Iron Legs Burk will be there.
It’s being billed as a workshop/reading, where I’ll tell you everything I know about crime novels, which won’t take long. So if you’re anywhere near Third Street Books in McMinnville, Oregon on June 16, stop in and say hello.
When it’s done, I’m taking a walk down to the freight yard for old time’s sake, and you’re welcome to come along.
Iron Legs Burk in Oregon: Wanting things that can only be found in the Darkness on the Edge of Town.
The June Playboy has Mick Jagger's daughter undressed, but my favorite pic is the one of Wire to Wire next to a great short review by Anthony Vargas.
"In this impressive debut, Scott Sparling lends contemporary grunge to the genre as he embraces its trademark obsessions with sex, cash and dead ends. His all-too-human cast of contemporary boxcar drifters, glue sniffers and thugs is drawn in an impressionistic style that makes for stunning emotional depth."
The issue also features a food article by Jim Harrison and fiction by Robert Coover, so this month you really can buy it for the articles.
And in case Ms. Jagger wants to know, my turn-ons are Seger, power lines, and long romantic walks in the freight yard.
Okay, I didn’t actually do a reading in a strip club, despite various statements that I may have made on Facebook and elsewhere. Not everything you read online is true – I mean, I'm trying to promote a book here.
And technically, I did do a little reading in a strip club – Portland’s Club Rogue – but only as part of a video shoot for the book trailer. No one else was there except the film crew from Juliet Zulu, Tony Perez from Tin House, and Sandria Dore, a dancer who was oddly unimpressed to meet an author. Although that was in the script, so maybe she was just staying in character.
We were filming in Club Rogue because Michael Slater, one of the main characters in Wire to Wire, has a habit of going to strip clubs at various points in the book. He doesn’t go to see naked women, however. He goes there to feel the fear of exposing his loneliness and need:
“One dancer in particular had his number. She made him look left, she made him look right. She had him on a little string. She was extremely good-looking and the fear she inspired scoured a month of crap off his soul.”
And yes, that's a Bob Seger t-shirt I'm wearing. Perhaps another reason why the stripper ignored me.
After the shoot, just to see what it felt like, I stood by the pole and read to the empty room as the film crew packed up. I’ll be replicating this experience in bookstores soon, minus the pole, but hopefully with an audience. The tour schedule is here. Come and make it rain.
I did, however, read, at the Springwater Grange in Estacada, Oregon, last Saturday night. Friends, acquaintances, and passers-by who were quick to believe that I gave a reading in an empty strip club were suddenly doubtful when I claimed to have read in the Grange Hall. People, you’ve got it backward – the Grange was amazing. Writers Night at the Grange was like three levels better than the best reading you can possibly imagine.
It attains that status through the goodwill, generous heart and friendship of Stevan Allred, who has organized the event for the Estacada Area Arts Commission for the past nine years, and from Joanna Rose, author of Little Miss Strange, who teaches with Stevan at the Pinewood Table and shares the stage with him at the Grange.
Every year, a third person is invited to join in reading – often one of their students – and this year it was me. Go ahead, take a guess as to how many people come out on a Saturday night in Estacada to hear writers read. Nope, you’re low. Double it. Still low. I counted nearly 70 people. It was an amazing experience – a perfect, confidence-building way to debut Wire to Wire and start the book tour.
The theme of the night was On the Road. Joanna read a beautiful piece about a road trip through rural Oregon, snow, and memories. Stevan read an essay about a real 1970s freight-hopping trip that took me back to my youth – reminding me that, originally, I jumped freight trains for the same reason Slater visits strip clubs – to scour the fear off my soul.
After the reading, there was a huge party at Stevan’s house, as there is every year. When I say it was a terrific time, that’s true. When I say I regret starting a fight and stabbing a guy, that’s not. But feel free to spread the rumor. I’ve got a book to promote, and I could use the buzz.
Thanks to Juliet Zulu for the production still at Club Rogue, and fellow writer and previous Grange-reader Steve Denniston for the shot of me at the podium.
Say it takes you an hour to drive through rural Oregon to the Springwater Grange. Say you've been waiting for this all your life. Roll down the window and play this fucking loud. Steve Earle, "Feel Alright."
Next weekend I’m reading an excerpt from Wire to Wire at the Springwater Grange in Estacada, Oregon. It’s a big room, and I’ve been practicing for it, working on getting it loud.
I can do loud, but I don’t do it naturally. My speaking voice is normally a little bit quiet. In fact, a long time ago I adopted the line from the B-side song “The Quiet One” by The Who: I ain’t quiet – everybody else is too loud. (For younger readers, The Who are an a cappella group from Leeds, known for their delicate harmonies.)
On the other hand, when I started learning fiction, my writing voice was the opposite of my speaking voice: I always wanted the writing to be loud. A blast of voice is how I would describe my early style now, though at the time I called it incantatory – because I had read that Kerouac and Joseph Conrad, both of whom I liked, were incantatory writers. I wanted sentences that went on for pages, doubled back on themselves, and emptied the bench of every punctuation mark known to man, especially semi-colons. Dashes were good too.
Of course, I was doing this at about the same time Raymond Carver was revitalizing the short story with short, direct sentences that displayed exactly the opposite signal to noise ratio. (In Carver’s case, all signal, no noise.) My allegiance to the sound of a sentence (caring more about how the syllables fell than the story being told, would be a harsh way of putting it) might have been an early warning sign of the long road ahead. But I wasn’t deterred.
In fact, I once sent a friend an unmarked cassette tape with a message, written in Sharpie, probably in all caps, that said: “This is how I want my writing to sound.” On the tape was an Elvin Jones drum solo. I bought some of his albums to listen to when I wrote.
(And I still have them. Filed under J right next to Joan Jett. Go ahead - imagine me as a vinyl aficionado if you like. It’s not really true, but I like the way aficionado sounds on the page. Which explains why I once changed my name to Johnny Revillagegado for a very brief time. But that’s a whole nother post, as we would say in Michigan.)
Eventually I finished a story built around voice. It opened like this:
It was a new time and we rode slam hard, rode it on flatcars and hoppers and bulkhead flats, in empty woodchip cars, gons, auto ramps, and piggies all over the west, the prairies and dirty western towns of district nine, Kalama, Lillooet, Sutter’s Portage, dozens of towns seen from the frame of a boxcar and eyes numb past blinking. Towns of dust where dirty kids threw rocks at the train – in laziness, not maliciously – and empty towns on the straight flat where the last lit beer sign burned thirty miles into the night.
The story worked, sort of – it got published in a low-circulation newsletter – but soon I discovered the limitations of voice (like the problem of wearing the reader out). And I started reading Robert Stone. Since then I’ve read the opening sentence of Dog Soldiers about 7,000 times. “There was only one bench open in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied.” A setting, a character, and an action, all in 19 fairly quiet words. My admiration for that, and for the rest of the book, started me on a new path – one of looking beyond voice. Beyond loud.
I would still be lost on that path today – wandering through the woods, eating acorns, clutching an unfinished manuscript for warmth – were it not for Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Stevan and Joanna teach writers in Portland at The Pinewood Table, named for the table in Joanna’s living room. I joined the group in the early 2000s, thinking I would stay for five weeks or so. I stayed for five years instead. I read every word of Wire to Wire around that table; the parts that puzzled me most (and there were lots of them) I read two or three times. If not for Stevan and Joanna and the other writers at the table (from whom I learned nearly as much) there would be no book, no blog, no readings. Among the many things I learned at that table was when and how to stop writing Wire to Wire.
Stevan and Joanna are both reading at the Grange this coming weekend – Stevan organizes the Writers Night event once a year. This year, the theme is "On the road." I’m thrilled to be reading there with them. I’ll be going to a lot of great bookstores this summer – places I’ve always dreamed of reading. But nothing could be more perfect than starting with Stevan and Joanna at the Springwater Grange in Estacada.
As far as I’m concerned, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Elvin Jones explains how to build a drum solo around the melody of "Three Card Molly."
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