He is not angry anymore, no longer a rabble-rouser. There was no sitar accompaniment, no drums, no rubber masks, no embroidered vest. Robert Bly is old now, and a wee bit forgetful, but he still knows how to put on a show, and he still comes deeply alive for poetry. On Wednesday evening, he launched his latest book, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," at the University of Minnesota in front of about 250 people.
After a tender and lengthy introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping to jumpstart Bly's blue P lymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned-with-faint-praise a poem written by one of Browne's students, saying it was as exciting as the phrase "I almost went to Hawaii once"), Bly and his friend and fellow poet Thomas R. Smith took the stage.
With Smith holding the microphone and occasionally offering a gentle prompt, Bly read. Twenty-five poems, some of the lines and stanzas read more than once, in the way that Bly does, for emphasis. He was playful and sly, joking after a couple of poems that he had no idea what they meant. He beat out a rhythm with his hand, he sometimes lapsed into funny voices, taking on characters. ("One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / 'How do you sleep? I love curliness,' " and giving the mouse a squeaky voice.)
He turned serious with "When My Dead Father Called," and then deliberately broke the mood afterward by saying, "Did I really write this? My memory's so bad every time I read one of my own poems I think I've never read that before."
But he had of course proved that wrong just a few minutes before, reciting--not reading--"Poem in Three Parts," looking out at the crowd with those blue blue eyes of his, never glancing down at the page.
While it might be early poems such as that one that are imbedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting. In "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," he says: "It's hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief." And then he stopped, and looked up. "I didn't always believe that," he said; he used to believe we were valued for happiness and fun. And then he read the stanza again.
The poem ends, "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm."
"When you get to be my age, you notice that," he said. "How many have gone down in the storm."
Such a poignant evening, watching this 86-year-old white-haired man read from fifty years' of poems, watching him grow animated at the sound of his own remarkable words. In the end, of course, thunderous applause, and an uncharacteristic modesty. "It's good of you to clap," he said. "It makes an old Norwegian happy."
Rice's new book is the sequel to "The Wolf Gift," the first in her Wolf Gift Chronicles series about werewolves. The two Rices will be in the Mall of America Rotunda at 6 p.m. on Monday.
Here's a Q&A conducted by her publicists at Alfred A. Knopf:
Q: It’s been almost two years since The Wolf Gift was published. What has been the most fun for you about writing this new series?
A: The new cosmology is terrific fun. Since this is a brand new series, I’m able to evolve a whole new type of supernatural character—the morphenkind, or man wolf—and make up an origin story for the species and work with what powers these creatures have and so forth. I’ve loved that. But as always the novels are about character, and I do love the new cast—Reuben my youthful hero, his family, and the contemporary setting. As always I like blending a family story with a supernatural story. I’ve done this with the Mayfair Witches and to some extent with the vampires. But the very most fun? I guess the new cosmology—that Reuben the Man Wolf is a comic book hero, living a double life as a reporter and a man wolf.
Q: A defining element of your werewolves is that they are sentient during transformation, but also that they can detect and hunt out evil. How does The Wolves of Midwinter begin to blur those clear lines of good vs. evil for your main character, Reuben?
A: Well, Reuben and Stuart—both young man wolves—are coming to see the obvious, that there is no real objective standard in the world of what is good or evil, much as we all wish that there was. And in some situations, they do not see clearly what to do. They transform into powerful beast men and can easily kill and punish evil doers, but what happens when the evil doer is contrite and becomes a victim himself? Do they stop in their tracks? Their powers put an immense burden on those human beings who know what they are. Is it moral for a good man to contact Reuben and ask for his help with despicably evil murderers, knowing full well that Reuben has the power to transform into a Man Wolf and bring immediate death to the evil ones? In The Wolves of Midwinter they confront this problem for the first time.
Q: What was it about the unfinished nature of Reuben’s relationship with Marchent that inspired you to bring back her ghost in The Wolves of Midwinter?
A: Marchent was a very strong character and she left the narrative early. She died violently. I thought what if she lingers, confused, uncertain, an earthbound spirit in need of guidance to the light? I think it was her character and how strong she felt to me in the first book that prompted me to bring her back. When I write I believe the old cliché: there are no small parts, only small actors. And so even if a character is going to be in a book for a very short while (as Marchent was in the first book) I’ll go deep into that character, seeking to make that character very real, and then when the character is dispatched, well I miss the character. That’s what happened with Marchent.
Q: The Wolves of Midwinter features the emergence of other “Ageless Ones,” like the Forest Gentry, and the strange servants who serve the Distinguished Gentlemen. How do these new characters allow you build upon the werewolf mythology you’ve created?
A: It’s flat out unrealistic to present a universe in which the morphenkinder are the only preternatural inhabitants. It’s a failure of imagination to not ponder what other supernatural or preternatural beings they might know or interact with. I thought it only natural that immortal morphenkinder would know a lot about spirits, ghosts, and so forth, and other immortals. It was fun to imagine new species. And I love writing about ghosts. I am doing it in other books now as well as in The Wolf Gift Chronicles. I have a mythology of ghosts and spirits that transcends any individual series I’ve written and I just love it. With Reuben and his friends, I feel like I’m just getting started on their world. I may bring in other elements soon. For now though the Forest Gentry and the “strange servants” are really delighting me.
Q: The Wolves of Midwinter also introduces new members of other werewolf packs, suggesting a much larger world exists beyond the Distinguished Gentlemen. Will we learn more about the past history of the Morphenkinder as the series continues?
A: Yes, as the series continues we will learn much more about the history of the Morphenkinder. I already have a big surprise brewing for book three. And of course we have only begun to see in this second book how morphenkinder from other parts of the world can make serious trouble for Reuben, Felix, Margon and the inhabitants of Nideck Point. I feel that in these two Wolf Gift books I’ve opened many doors and I want this to develop into a huge fantasy series.
Q: So much of the setting and atmosphere of The Wolves of Midwinter is tied to traditional Christmas holiday rituals. What experiences and research did you draw from to create such a rich setting? Were you inspired by European holiday festivals? What was your favorite part of creating the Festival in Nideck Point?
A: I am enthralled with Yuletide customs the world over but particularly those of Europe and America. I did intensely research them, seeking for material everywhere. I have used intense Christmas symbols and mythology in The Witching Hour and in Lasher, and I am very interested, as you can see, in delving into it with the wolves. I am intrigued as to why our heritage includes belief in ghosts walking at Christmastime and so many Christmas ghost stories, like those written in Victorian England, for instance. I’m intrigued with the ancient European custom of people dressing as beasts and in animal skins around Christmastime—with customs involving bonfires and echoes of human sacrifice. Clearly the feast of midwinter was serious business in our past, a time when we celebrated the cycles of the earth, the desperate hope that the warm spring and summer sun would return, in spite of the ice and snows, and that we would see light and growth and possibility again. That’s in our blood as human beings. And to me all this is related to the very idea of the man wolves—that we humans remember on some level when we were very primitive and closer to the animal world than we are today, that our nature is always animal and divine mixed together, that we are mammals with souls. Christmas is the great feast at the very heart of our cultural experience of these mysteries. God becoming man in the Christ Child in the dark of winter is a potent symbol for all of us—human beings who are spiritual as well as physical—and for our great need to control our animal nature while never forgetting it.
Q: By contrast, the Yuletide ritual of the werewolves is much more pagan and primitive. Did you know that scene would be such a climax of the book when you started? Or did you discover its power as you were writing?
A: Yes, I started out with the idea of exploring how the wolves would celebrate the pagan feast of midwinter as well as the Christmas feast of midwinter. I have introduced characters who are immortals, one of whom at least was born long before the Christian era, and I wanted to see how as a tribe the morphenkinder would honor this ancient and evolving feast of Yule.
Q: How does technology play a role in a series where your hero Reuben is a young reporter grappling with an ancient transformation? Is it challenging to fuse the contemporary aspects of Reuben’s life (his iPhone, laptop, etc.) with the timelessness of the Chrism?
A: If Reuben is to be believable as a contemporary reporter he has to be involved with technology. I have to ask myself, how would he use all the technological devices we have today in confronting the Wolf Gift? It’s only natural that he would photograph himself in transformation with his iPhone, and look up werewolves on the web, and of course write down his thoughts on his computer. It would be a failure of imagination to try to present some atmospheric gothic world today in which technology doesn’t exist. We supernatural writers have to meet the challenges of today in writing our stories. I love the gothic atmosphere of Nideck Point, the gothic aspects of Christmas, but to present a quaint world without flat screen TVs, or desk top computer or iPhones, would just be ridiculous and shallow. I believe that great gothic stories can be told today as well as ever and that referencing all our technological advances can be done with no sacrifice of romance or gothic thrills.
Q: Can you give us a hint for things to look forward to in the next book in The Wolf Gift Chronicles?
A: It’s too early for me to say. Right now I’m thinking a lot about Sergei, the Russian man wolf, and about Stuart, the young gay man wolf, but I’m not sure where the story will go. I do think it might involve more chunks of time, much more travel, more conflict and so on. And I have not forgotten little Suzie Blakely or Pastor George, two key characters in The Wolves of Midwinter. We might hear more from them too. Reuben is in a real world, and it is a world filled with potential trouble and potential adventure.
Q: What have been your favorite reactions from fans about your return to the gothic?
A: Naturally I love their enthusiasm for the characters and the storytelling. I love that readers are willing to follow me into something wholly new. I’ve published over thirty books and there are always flattering requests for old characters and old stories to continue. But I treasure the response of those who are delighted with something fresh and contemporary.
Jhumpa Lahiri had requested no photographs, so you will just have to imagine the scene last night: Two lovely, intense women, both with long dark hair and wearing skirts and boots, seated side-by-side in comfortable armchairs in the front of the beautiful old sanctuary of St. Pau l's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, a wooden table between them, set with mugs of water. A table lamp cast a warm glow.
The two women were powers of American letters: Louise Erdrich, winner of the 2012 National Book Award (and many other significant awards), in conversation with visiting writer Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and currently in the running for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize for her new book, "The Lowland." (Strib review here.)
No photos, no video, the talk would be "old school," Erdrich said. "Hard-cover books. An event in present-time. You, us, and this wonderful book--graceful, full of heart."
Lahiri, who reportedly is not fond of book tours, has not only forbidden photographs but has canceled all interview requests for the rest of her tour. "Thank you, Louise, for talking to me and sitting with me tonight," she said. "I think it will be just what I need on this long road, this long march of mine."
She read an early passage of "The Lowland," a powerful section in which the two brothers in the book--Subhash and Udayan--are still young and are caught trespassing in the exclusive Tolly Club and are caught by a policeman, who steals from the boys, beats one of them, threatens both.
"Where did this place come from for you?" Erdrich asked. "It's so powerful."
The place is real, Lahiri said.The Lowland is "the area of Calcutta where my own father was raised, a neighborhood I have come to know quite well. Tolly Land was built by the British, a place for them to retreat and ride horses and play golf and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city."
In her research ("In spite of the fact that I know it well and can conjure it," she still needed to find out the history of the area), Lahiri learned that the area had once been a flood plain, later drained by the English. "That gave me some sort of working metaphor for the story," she said.
The story itself also sprang from memories of her childhood. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, but her family traveled back to India every other year to visit relatives. And during those visits, she became aware of the Naxalite Movement, a sometimes-violent rebellion that one of the brothers in her novel becomes involved in.
"There was a family who lived very close to my grandparents," she said, "that had two boys who became involved in the movement." One evening when the police raided the neighborhood, the boys ran and took refuge in the lowland. But they were captured and were executed in front of their family.
"That was the most upsetting thing," she said. "It just shook me. I found it bewildering and confusing that something like that could happen in the neighborhood where I passed time reading books, visiting friends and family. That triggered something in me. I didn't know what to do with it, but when I began writing seriously, the idea would float in and out, and I became aware of the desire to shape this and do something with it."
It was years before she wrote down that scene, but even then it remained just a scene for a long time. "I coudln't do anything more with it. I set it aside for a decade," and finally went back to it in 2008.
Erdrich asked her about the origin on the main characters, and Lahiri replied that she was interested in understanding what leads people to violence. In the case of political movements, "It's often what they see as the greater good," she said. "They did believe in violence as a way to achieve these means.
"I really wanted to examine violence in many forms--not just physical, but emotional. So much of writing begins with these questions, with wanting to understand." And Erdrich, whose latest novel, "The Round House," also involved an examination of violence, nodded in agreement.
Lahiri took no questions from the audience, but at the end of the hour agreed to sign books for the sell-out crowd of 350 people. As Erdrich noted in her opening remarks, the book is on the long list for the National Book Award (the short list will be announced next week) and on the short list for the "extremely prestigious" Man Booker Prize. She hoped, she said, that Lahiri wins both, and that "you can use the same acceptance speech for both of them."
Alice McDermott's new novel, "Someone," long-listed for a National Book Award, is a quiet, rich book, the story of an Irish-American woman named Marie who lives in Brooklyn. Last night at Macalester College, in an event sponsored by Common Good Books, she read passages from the novel to a rapt crowd of about 100 people.
She chose three passages that traced Marie's romantic life--from the first time her heart was broken, to the first time she met her future husband, to a frightening but ultimately reassuring and loving incident in middle age. These same passages are the ones she suggested to her jazz musician son, Will Armstrong, when he told her he was interested in setting parts of her book to music.
(The result is a soundtrack for "Someone," issued by McDermott's publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can listen to, or buy, the haunting, Irish-tinged tunes at www.willarmstrongjazz.com)
But back to Will's mom.
After her reading, McDermott took questions--no, she said; her books are not terribly autobiographical. "I couldn't write autobiography to save my life," she said. "I'm a fiction writer to the bone. The impulse to lie is strong."
That said, she added, her own experiences of the world are reflected in her books--that world of Irish-Americans in New York, their traditions and faith, the soda bread, the language and diction.
She wrote "Someone" partly to preserve some of that. "I wanted to get some of the language of the time, the phrases," she said. Not history--the history is easily knowable--but the attitude and vocabulary.
She also wrote it because "I wanted to go against the trend and give an entire novel over to a female character who didn't have much voice in her own life," she said. Her protagonist, Mary, is a nearsighted quiet woman who came of age in the 1930s and married after World War II. Her older brother, Gabe, was the golden boy who her parents were sure was going to become a priest; Mary's role as a child was to sit quietly and listen while he recited poetry at the dinner table.
"She came of age at a time when people said, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses,' " McDermott said. "That was not a joke. Yes, hers is an ordinary life. But what life is ordinary? I wanted to undermine the idea of an ordinary life. None of us is ordinary.
"Detail. That's how we distinguish. The specficity by which we define lives."
And "Someone" is rich, rich in sensory detail--not just sounds and sights, but textures and, especially, smells: the cold smell of winter and the mothball smell of fur coats and the homey smell of soda bread baking. (Which, by the way, McDermott does not bake. She said she doesn't cook; she writes stories about people who do, and that's just as good.)
Literary fiction, McDermott said, is more about language than it is about plot. "The duty of literary fition is to take language to the point where we only intuit the meaning, to the point we have no words for."
The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul was packed Tuesday evening with moms and little girls (and also some dads and some boys)--out on a school night! But surely this was an occasion their teachers would approve of: the book launch of Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo's latest YA book, "Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures," and the author herself in bright and hilarous conversation with Minnesota Public Radio host Cathy Wurzer.
DiCamillo's book, longlisted for a National Book Award, is the story of a little girl named Flora, a neighbor with a vacuum cleaner, a squirrel that develops superpowers (after being sucked into the machine), and the adventures that ensue. She wrote the book shortly after the death of her mother, and, like all good books--and all DiCamillo books--"Flora & Ulysses" has, Wurzer noted, "themes of loss, abandonment, and death." Is this appropriate for a children's book?, she asked.
"I didn't mention themes. You did," DiCamillo said. "It kind of surprises me that they're in there. But they're in everything that I do. Children are human beings and they're going to experience all of those things, and it's nice to have a book that admits those things are out there."
At this, the little girls--or maybe it was their moms--burst into applause.
The idea for the book came from two things: The vacuum cleaner that DiCamillo inherited from her mother, and a dying squirrel that she noticed on the front steps of her Minneapolis home a few years back. "This is a book a lot about a mother-daughter relationship," she said. "That's because every time I pulled into the garage, I'd see that vacuum cleaner and be reminded of my mom."
Though a friend suggested whacking the dying squirrel with a shovel, DiCamillo left it on the steps and, instead, went into the house and re-read E.B. White's essay, "Death of a Pig."
"And I started to think of ways to save a squirrel's life."
The squirrel on her front steps disappeared--crawled off to die somewhere else, she surmises--and she began work on her new book.
DiCamillo read aloud from the first few chapters of the book, and when she got to the part where Flora performs CPR on the squirrel she barely made it through, she was trying so hard not to laugh. "It tasted funny. Fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty."
Wurzer roared with laughter. And, in unison, they read it again.
"That line kept me going through rewrites," DiCamillo said. "It always made me laugh."
There was more--oh, so much more. Discussion of the writing process, and the importance of editors, and then questions from the young crowd. (One of the last questions was from a serious little girl with dark hair who began by saying, "My name is Flora," and the crowd, and DiCamillo, were delighted.)
The evening was taped for broadcast later on Minnesota Public Radio. Watch for it.
|Books (36)||Movies (1)|
|Theater (1)||People (1)|
|Books and resources (5)||Awards (10)|
|Behind the scenes (3)||Book news (227)|
|Galleries (1)||Minnesota authors (12)|
|Museums (1)||St. Paul Como Park (1)|
|Television (1)||Author events (163)|
|Best sellers (6)||Book reviews (8)|
|Book stores (47)||Local authors (140)|
|Readings (62)||Book awards (92)|
|Illustrators (8)||Workshops and conferences (30)|
|Libraries (28)||Local publishers (35)|
|Minnesota Book Awards (10)||World Book Night (4)|
|Club Book (5)||Pen Pals (3)|
|Talk of the Stacks (7)||Talking Volumes (2)|
|E-books (2)||Coffee House Press (4)|
|Competitions (1)||Garrison Keillor (1)|
|Graywolf Press (13)||Louise Erdrich (8)|
|Milkweed Editions (1)||Poetry (13)|
|Robert Bly (4)|