La Familia, The Palouse

I am mesmerized by the Palouse country of southeastern Washington and western Idaho. The winter wheat fields’ stretch for miles and read like the hips of reclining figures to the eye.  Some of the lines are chocolate brown of the fertile soil and some are golden with the straw of the old wheat stalks. In mid summer they will be green waves. There are great rounds of hay and alfalfa with their monstrous irrigation pivot systems running on wheels defining the landscape into great circles from the air.  Corporate farming has made it a lonely country now.  Very few homes with the traditional cotton woods and lilac trees around the kitchen windows, those places have either fallen to a shambles of grey boards to become the home of bees or have been bulldozed to make way for pole and metal structures for servicing giant machines.  The little working towns are dusty and the ones that hang on are homes to part stores and mechanics.  The water towers rarely have graffiti from the local football team, for those kids ride the bus to the larger towns now, where the Banks have their headquarters and the truck dealerships share a corner with the John Deere representatives. The biggest towns are Pullman and Moscow and both are University Towns, which used to be big Ag, schools and still have programs but fewer and  fewer people need apply,  now they need to repair the computers and machines that determine what big farming is all about.

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I won’t get into if this is a good way to go.  I’m not smart enough in how to feed a planet or if we should be feeding a planet or helping a planet feed itself. I just know that I have a romantic and a philosophical kinship with the notion that people working together on farms where they live for generations impart a certain stewardship and responsibility to both the land and the larger community of their customers and the smaller community of their neighbors.  But I also know that those small farmers often had hellishly hard lives and did not engender generous or literate values upon their families at times and places in the past.  Read a discussion between Wendell Barry and Mary Clearman Blew to get both sides of the supposed pastoral life.

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What do I know? I come from a steep-sided rain forest?  This flat dry country is exotic and beautiful to me.  I love driving through it.  I love the brick buildings of its towns and the husky portions and the burgers they put on the plates.  I’m just grateful to be here.

 

The reading in Seattle was fun.  Lots of family came and definitely outnumbered the unsuspecting customers who wandered in out of curiosity to see me.  An older couple from Alaska had a great time, and acted like an Amen chorus, saying “That’s right… that’s just right!” aloud as I read particular lines describing home, which I quite enjoyed. (I’ve always wanted to be a preacher about Alaska)  Two women who I knew as quite a small child came.  Ann Randlett and I were friends when I was about six years old.  I spent many hours at her house next door when we lived in Woodway Park north of Seattle.  She brought Chris Wright who came from a big family of girls and the Wrights were close friends of our family.  At the reading I introduced her to my sister as “Chrissie Wright” and my sister Martha gasped in wonderment.  Chris said,  “No one has called me Chrissy for probably forty years, and her eyes teared up a bit saying that her father had passed away in the last year or so, and thinking of her old life sometimes made her cry.  She turned to me.  “No… I like it.  I like that you called me Chrissie.” 

 

Family has a hold on us. Always and in unexpected ways.

 

We broke up early and I went to my sister’s house.  Their children were home for a rare visit.  Their son and his long time girl friend both accomplished artists in New York and Paris, their daughter pursuing her Ph.D. in biology at Oregon State. They were all home. We had a lovely time talking about painting, ecology and poetry, my sister and her husband were happy, with that warm feeling I remember from long ago when my four siblings came home from their colleges at Christmas and my father ran the dinner table as if it were a symposium.  Except this feeling was all love, loose and funny where anything could be said.  My father was much more formal and often wanted to make sure he was getting his money’s worth.  Or so it seems now, and I might not being fair.  I know he loved having us home and certainly our mother did. 

 

But the night after my reading I was honored to be in my sister’s house with her smart children wrapped in that feeling of familial love.  Pride. Honest accomplishment.  Again, I’m lucky to be driving across hundreds of miles of lonely country to give a reading where who knows who might show up or not.  I’m lucky to have their love to travel with me.  This is the support a writer needs to give them courage, from a actual family… or a family of choice… this intimacy, this love of long meandering conversations of different disciplines… this does more for creativity than the McCarthur Foundation.  I’m sure of it.

 

 

In golden stubble

one male pheasant beats his wings

then glides… silently.

 

 

jhs

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Postcard From The Train

I’m on the train from Portland to Seattle, bumping along through the farmland and the industrial backyards of the wetlands and river valleys of the soggy northwest coast. We past my old stomping grounds in Centralia where I did the research for Death And The Language Of Happiness, and I strained to see the bridge that replaced the one where they hung John Wesley Everest the unlucky member of the I.W.W. who got caught up in the riot of 1919.  Last time Jan and I were there we cleaned his grave.  Railroad rides always feel like glimpses backstage to me. 

 The reading at Powell’s bookstore last night went well.  There was a nice crowd of about twenty five people who seemed to enjoy themselves.  I read from the mystery and we had a good discussion then I closed with an essay that included a good quote from William Stafford who was both the poet Laureate of the United States and the PL of Oregon, he lived only a few miles from the store where we were.  If anyone could be called a “favorite son” it would be Stafford. We had a fine time and I left feeling bolstered.  Then went to dinner with some good friends and ate at a joint called The Woodsman, and ate the best pork chop that has ever touched my lips.  I ate with Chris Bernard who used to be a reporter in Sitka and is the author of “Chasing Alaska” his friend who is also a writer and my old friends Jody and Willa who have recently moved to Portland.  Willa loves everything about Portland, and Jody is adjusting after twenty fifty some years in the south and the east coast.  Jody is solidly blue collar but an autodidact and incredibly well read.  He doesn’t take to trends or fads.  He also is not one for political group think.  We had a fine time talking about Portland, about the artist in residence at the dump where he goes, and when he worked at the hardware store in Portland about helping a customer who wanted food for his pet ant.  In the singular.  One pet ant. 

 I enjoy Portland.  I like the various neighborhoods, and the music scene seems lively and diverse.  I like the people with all their community problem-solving energy.  New Yorkers have always loved to make fun of life on the west coast, all the way back to Fred Allen, through Woody Allen and his Las Angeles phobia.  Now Portlandia likes to make its stereotypes, which is fine.  I like it weird though.  If not there… in Portland, where then?  And besides, where else could I get a brined and wood smoked slow cooked pork chop with perfectly cooked pork and beans with a delectable cornbread biscuit, served without an ounce of irony?  Perfect, I’m telling you.

 Tonight, I will be in Seattle with my family and tomorrow night will do a reading at Third Place Books in Ravenna.  Then I’m off to Moscow Idaho…  I will take my time to drive through that beautiful wheat country.  Maybe I’ll stop and get a bottle of wine in Walla Walla and pull off somewhere in the Palouse and write another short note. 

 Along a slow stream

a muddy pony stands still

as the train blasts by.

 

jhs

My First Stop: I Can't Make You Like Me.

I’m in Phoenix and it’s a hundred and ten degrees today.  It’s the day after the Poison Pen Mystery Readers and Writers Conference, I’m staying in a swanky resort with eight swimming pools.  I walked around and looked at three of them and I almost melted.  I leaned over and put my hand in the water and that too felt hot and sour with chlorine. I didn’t go swimming but came back to my air conditioned room, and listened to a Tom Cruise movie.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to this kind of conference.  It’s a gathering of about two dozen writers, with one big name writer to head the bill, and about ninety readers and people interested in writing their own books who pay to attend.  Some come to meet their favorite writers and some come to pitch their books to the editors who also attend.

The programing at this conference was set up mostly by Barbara Peters who runs Poison Pen Press who is a powerful force in the Mystery Literature world, she is a publisher, editor, and legendary bookstore owner and reader of everything.  She knows everyone and is friends with almost all of them. She is smart and apparently ageless.  It’s kind of unnerving.  This was a very pleasant and low key conference.  The people were friendly and relaxed.  At some of the bigger and busier conferences, like Bouchercon next week,  fans have less time and they sometimes need to rush around to get books signed and find their authors on a kind of tense scavenger hunt, but this gathering was more relaxed and we had good conversation about books and authors.

There were great authors there.  Some of them I had read and knew well.  Ian Rankin from Scotland gave a fine talk about Scottish Crime fiction, Dana Stabennow, and I spoke about Alaska and Alaskan readers.  James Sallis, interviewed Rankin and his band entertained us.  I love his poetry and his early crime books.  He teaches here in Phoenix.  There was Francine Mathews who writes lovely books about Jane Austin, and now books about Nantucket.

Then I also met authors new to me: Stephen Mack Jones whose first book August Snow is causing a stir.  He writes about Detroit and it was the one book I bought.  Reavis Z. Wortham, is a rancher from Texas wears the boots and has the hat and the mustache to go with them, but he has a great sense of humor and tells a good story and made me eager to read his books.  Mette Ivie Harrison, is another Soho writer who writes about a Mormon woman who both keeps to her faith but keeps running into the strict practices of the LDS church.  Her Mormon mother is an amateur sleuth and just the contradictions she brought up on her panels drew a ton of interest to her books.  When we went out to dinner, of course I told my usual crass jokes, and of course I apologized when I wasn't’ really sorry and of course she said that she would “pray for my soul” with a good dose of irony… or was that irony?

While I do have a good time at these gatherings and I always learn things, I always have to learn the same thing over and over again each time I go out.  The thing I always have to learn is,  “I can't make you like me.”  That is… I just have to relax and be myself.  When I’m around popular writers, I always feel they are better read than I am more talented more successful, I become extremely insecure and self-conscience and self-conciseness is the enemy of clarity. Worse it sounds whiney and ungrateful to an audience member who sees me as incredibly lucky to be up on a panel or having books published in the first place.  What do I have to feel insecure about?  I’ve made it.  The thing is I haven’t.  But that’s okay. I’m in a good spot in my life.  It doesn’t matter anyway…fame isn’t mine.  Fame belongs to someone else.  The only thing that I own are my words.  This is the mantra I have to tell myself before each public appearance.  Like Popeye,  “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.”  Which sounds simple… but sometimes… who I am is an insecure mess, and that’s the truth and to be otherwise feels like being an arrogant phony. 

But I must resist.  Because I can’t make anyone like me, so I just have to remember to eat my spinach before I go to these things.

My friends help me always. Dana helps me always.  She is strong and always supportive.  My book seller friends, Ashia in Sitka, and Carole Price at Book People, always help me.  My brother Richard Nelson, always has my back,  and now here in Phoenix I’ve learned that I have a family at Soho Press.  Juliet Grames and Paul Oliver and all the incredible writers are truly in it for the love of the words, which really are the only things we own. 

Tomorrow I will meet Jan in Florida.  She is the strongest nourishment I need,  she transforms me. 

I am so lucky. I can’t wait for the next stop in Florida.

 

Hot morning

  sun searing the bright green lawn

.and light blue pool.

 

jhs

Leaving Home For A Book Tour

Rain today.  When I took my shower outside this morning, leaves fell from the alders all around me, and young crows made a ruckus above my head then flitted from branch to branch.  The mist was so thick I could not see the small island so near shore we can walk to it at low tide. 

I am getting ready for a long trip to promote the new book.  First I’m going to Arizona and then Florida to mystery conference. Jan will meet me in Florida because she has some time and she wants to drive with me to Del Ray where I will do a reading then she has to fly home to Alaska because she has a research trip in Prince William Sound.  For years she has been working with the humpback whales in the sound and sampling the small fish they are feeding on, to continue studying the impact of the oil spill and the health of the forage fish of the ecosystem. 

I will fly back to the pacific northwest where I will read in Portland, Seattle, Moscow Idaho, and Ilwaco, then back down to Tacoma for The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference.  (You can find details on my events page)

I look forward to seeing my friends on these trips: Dana Stabenow, and Jim Sallis in particular. I look forward to the good conversations I will have.  There is almost nothing I love more than meeting writers and sitting around gabbing.  I also love meeting people who actually read my books, other than my friends and family.  It seems like a miracle to me to get off a jet plane in some crazy place like Arizona and meet someone who knows Cecil Younger and Todd. Sometimes it is odd when a fan talks with me as if they really know me too even though we have never met. (“John, what in the hell were you doing when you killed Todd’s dog in your second book? I almost came up to Alaska to slap you around!”)  But still, I love it.  I love meeting readers no matter where or when. 

But the older I get the more I hate leaving home.

There is such self-indulgence in my new writing life since I retired from crime.  In the last two years, I’ve written four books of poetry, a book of non-fiction, one completed and published novel and a draft of another.  I have a lovely writing space that looks out on a cherry tree I planted years ago and out to the ocean.  I have a few dear friends who call me periodically to help me move heavy things for them.  My wife, works hard with her students who love her and help her with all her adventures.  On Sundays, I play music in a café with some buddies, which I have done for some twenty years, and it is the most fun, I have all week.  I’m probably the least accomplished musician, I play mandolin and slide guitar.  We play swing music and blues, some folk music and some old jazz. We all listen to each other and no one shows off or wants to leave town to be a rock star.  We are all happy exactly where we are, doing what we do, which I’ve come to see is a blessing. 

I will travel around for a month in the lower 48 then I come home and will make trips out during the month of October for my Alaska tour.  I will be back and forth from home for that and that will be good.  I expect the weather in October will mess with flights so I will take ferries whenever possible, but the ferry schedule in and out of Sitka is not great these days. 

One of our best friends I will worry about is Nancy Ricketts.  Nancy is 93.  She lives in the Pioneers Home in town.  She took a fall the other day and her stomach doesn’t feel great.  She is not eating well.  She hates talking about her health.  Nancy likes to talk about substantial things.  She likes to talk about music, or science, books she has read or things she has learned in her long life.  Jan edited a book about Nancy’s father the great biologist and collector Ed Ricketts, who was made famous by John Steinbeck.  Nancy loves to talk about the things she remembers about her dad. She believes she inherited a great deal of his spirit, curiosity and adventure. I think that is true. Today she is staying in the infirmary at the Home.  I asked her if she was worried that her stomach problems were cancer.  She said,  “No, I’m not worried about that, I just want to know what is wrong, if it is cancer then I will just have another set of decision to make.  What room to be in and what to expect.  I’m still so lucky right now.  None of that really matters, I’ve been planning on dying soon anyway.”

Nancy is very lovely, when I last visited she was working on hemming a nice pair of pants.  She has a great sense of color and always wears cloths that look good on her and her hair is cut in a way that frames her face beautifully.  She is thin now, when she has pain and sits in her big chair under her reading light she reminds me of a Siamese cat, we will be talking about Gregorian Chants or the effects of music on her mood, she will stop and stretch towards the light with her eyes shut, cat-like; shudder a bit and then settle back.  When we visit her she becomes grumpy if we talk too much about her health.  She usually wants out of her room no matter how frail she feels. This weekend we drove out the road in the rain, we drove until we saw a small fawn scampering up the road ahead of us. We drove up a narrow road where we could see the mountains disappear into the clouds. We listened to sacred music then we turned around and I changed to Dixieland music for the bumpy jaunt downhill. 

We went back to her room and I lay on her floor.  I read aloud from a new book called This Land Is Your Land by Mike Lannoo, which is about the early history of Field Biology.  Lannoo is a friend of all of ours and he has written about Nancy’s dad.  I read aloud as Jan and Nancy sat back and listened.  Periodically both the opinionated women would chime in with comments or corrections.  “That’s not quite correct!” Nancy would pipe up, when I read something about what house they had first lived in...ever the editor. 

Soon she wanted to sleep, so we got up to go.  “He is such a good writer.” She said, always wanting to end with kindness, “and I had a wonderful time today,”  she said as we gathered our things.  “You be careful on your trip,” she said to me.  “I will” I said, “I will come see you first thing when I come home.”

Nancy shrugged her shoulders and smiled at me like a coquette,  “Who knows, where I’ll be?”  I kissed her and said goodbye, somehow not sad, but deeply moved, and calm in a way I had not felt before. 

 

Crows in the alders,

and a fawn sprints down the road

without its mother.

 

JHS

My Process And What Is Time To A Pig?

It's a beautiful summer day in Sitka, Alaska. The fireweed is better than six feet tall in our wild garden and the berries are ripe and soft on their stems.  Warm wind is carrying the smell of dry grass through our windows and I all most expect to see horses grazing on our lawn but alas there are no ponies to be seen. 

 

I finished the first draft of my next novel this week and I have sent it out to two readers for a first look.  My plan is to publish a Cecil book one year and a Cold Storage book the next and keep going that way for a bit. See how my readers like that.  The new Book is called What Is Time To A Pig? which is the punch line to a very fine joke. I wrote this draft longer than it will end up, as I usually do in a first draft, so I can trim the fat as I rework it.  The Cold Storage books are different than the Cecil books in several important ways.  First, they have different points of view.  Cecil books are first person from Cecil’s point of view and are pretty realistic. “I went to the store and walked up to the pig and I wondered what the heck the pig was thinking about just then…” CS books are third person and sometimes magical “He, she, it goes to the store and walks up to the pig, and the pig was thinking about what to have for dinner. ” Cold Storage books I tend to think are more like fairy tales, or screwball comedies.  Cecil books are more like a wise cracking detective story gone a little nutty. I don’t really know. I just write them.  I don’t like to characterize them. 

 

Anyway.  I research the book, but I usually start with a title.  This is bass akwards from what most writers do.  Most writers start with a plot they can pitch to an editor or a movie producer.  Not me…. and maybe that’s why I’m sitting in my yard here in Alaska and not in Los Angeles.  I start with a joke, or sometimes a scrap of poetry or something I read in someone’s notebook.  “The Curious eat themselves” was something that the poet Theodore Roethke had written in his notebook and had always stuck in my head as something interesting to think about and when Juris Jurjevic from Soho Press asked me if I had my second mystery done yet, and I told him “Ah… no… it needs some work…” meaning I hadn’t started it because I was told to tell Soho that the Woman Who Married A Bear was the first book in a series but I never thought anyone was going to buy the first one, so when Juris asked me “what is the title of the second book?”  I totally pulled out of my butt: “The Curious Eat Themselves”.

 

So, yes, I start with titles.  Then I make a list of places I want my characters to go.  Then I make a list of characters who could inhabit these places.  Then I come up with the plot that takes them to these places, which fits the poetry that was set ringing when I was struck by the title.  Like I said, other people don’t work this way.

 

Once I had to change a title, because the art department apparently got the giggles with the title I had chosen from one of my favorite haiku by Issa:

 

Naked

  on a naked horse

through the summer rain.

 

The novel was called “Naked On A Naked Horse.  The cover Artists apparently got giddy just thinking about it and my editor at Bantam made me change it.  I drove around one weekend with friends who had read the manuscript and we came up with Cold Water Burning.  Which I thought worked out a lot better than my first thought which was Fuck Off And Die, which my friends thought was immature and not helpful for the original problem with the Art Department.

 

Once I have title, place, characters, plot, lots of time spent staring out the window and making lists and reading and researching all of the above.  I start writing.  Rough draft discipline is number of words a day.  Usually a thousand words a day five days a week.  No cheating.  No storing up in a bank.  Five grand minimum.  No max. Then I get to about eighty thousand I wrap it up unless I have a much grander vision.  The Big Both Ways was meant to be longer.  There, I wanted to write a journey book.  Once the draft is done I let it sit and let people read it and then go back to it and then the discipline is number of hours a day. Usually three hours minimum. No cheating.  Once I start fixing things I’ve already fixed twice OR instead of fixing things I start changing things so I begin to essentially write a whole new book on top of the book I began.  I stop and let my real editor read it.  Then I work with them and follow their advice to the letter.  Unless one of us goes crazy or has a break down that is irreconcilable.  Which has never happened.  Once I get my editors revisions, I work on it until they tell me I’m done. Then there are usually two rounds of line edits after that; catching typos, and spacing issues, formatting, and proper names.  I am dyslexic and most often I hire private editors here at home or close buy to help me to find mistakes, which I am quite literally blind to. Then there are book design and jacket copy, blurbs, which I am allowed to have a voice in, and I'm honored to do that here at Soho.

 

I have to say that I love the people I work with at Soho Press.  That's it. I'm going to say it now, in case I never get any awards, they are the best. 

 

I was lucky to correspond with the great poet William Stafford before he died, he told me “An editor is a friend who makes sure only your best writing makes it out into the world.” When he first told me that I felt that editors were the people who sent rejection letters, but now I have come to believe these words of friendship. 

 

With each novel, I set myself a new goal, some new thing I want to try. This is what makes writing interesting.  I can’t bear writing the same thing over and over.  When I was a kid I loathed doing workbook homework where the teacher could just look up the answers in the book she kept locked in her desk.  I felt, what’s the point of this?  Why not just hand out that answer book to everyone and let us read that one and case closed.  No more suffering at home at night! Writing to a formula seems like doing that kind of homework to me.  It feels like the worst kind of homework, and I just won’t do it.

 

When I give a new manuscript to a reader for the first time, all I want to know is,  “Am I crazy?”  That’s it.  I will get more editing down the way,  I just want to know if the new twist or new technique is coming across without too much distraction. Is my hallucination real at all to you? So, it's not really, am I crazy... it's more, does this craziness come across vividly, and in an interesting way?  

My insanity is a given. We should all know that by now.  

In a little more than a year, if all goes well you should be able to read the well worked over version of this manuscript which, today at least, is called What Is Time To A Pig?

Here is hoping anyway. 

 

Warm evening: our yard.

   Wind brings in the smell of grass

and I hear horse bells.

 

 

 

jhs

Back With News And FAQs

After almost a week of beautiful summer weather here in Sitka the clouds are back with a westerly breeze blowing in off the Pacific.  My great nephew Jed Bynum is mowing the lawn and my new Cecil book is out in the stores.  I’ve decided to write another blog entry. 

Why?  I’m not sure, I suppose I owe it to a couple of my old friends who actually remember that I used to write this blog and might come back to it.

Here is an update on my life since my last entry: I’m still retired from my life of crime with the Public Defender. I lost the vision in my right eye  I wrote another Cecil book, called "Baby’s First Felony" and Soho reprinted all the other Cecil books. I published two books of Haiku poetry with Shorefast Editions of Juneau and expect to publish two more soon. Our old dog Gypsy got sick this winter and had to be put down. A man named Barry Burger in Sitka was dying of a brain tumor and asked me to write a book about a local veterinarian named Burgess Bauder, so I did that.  There are a thousand copies of that book and they are only available at Old Harbor Books in Sitka. They would be happy to ship one to you. I’m working on another Cold Storage book called "What is Time To A Pig?"  Our garden is half wild and half planted and quite beautiful this summer. We thought about moving to the lower 48 for health reasons but decided against it, so we will stay in Sitka on into our decrepitude. Last week a pod of four killer whales came right up to our boat and looked us in the eyes, which, I think, we all enjoyed. I turn sixty-five on July 23, and am thinking of getting my first tattoo, then when someone says, “You know, you’re going to have that the rest of your life!”  I will respond, “Why, yes, I do.”

So, that’s done. Now here are some frequently asked questions about the Cecil Younger Series and some top of the head answers. : 

Do I need to start with the beginning and read them in order? Not really but  from left to right here are the books in order, with their new covers: 

 

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If you want to follow a kind of arc in Cecil’s development you can start with "The Woman Who Married a Bear" and read them in order.  In the first six books Cecil Younger starts off as a drunken low life and kind of pulls himself up to be what passes for a respectable citizen in Alaska.. He is more mature and more responsible by the end of "Cold Water Burning" In the seventh, spoiler alert, he has some set backs.  In "The Woman Who Married a Bear," Cecil is not adverse to brutality.  In the rest of the series violence finds him.  He does not carry a gun, but guns find him.  This reflects reality as I experienced it working as a criminal defense investigator. I would have been jailed instantly if I had flourished a gun in the course of my work, and the skill was in not having to. Cops clearly did not want me carrying a gun around and if I had they would have arrested me for anything from tampering with witnesses to assault.  It just wouldn’t have worked.  Also I think I would have been very unlucky if I had carried a gun.  It’s true what Cecil says, “If someone wants to shoot me they are going to have to bring their own fucking gun.”  Guns in my line of work give you false courage and cause you to commit crimes. So Cecil did not carry a gun, for a good reason. 

What’s up with the cursing and the crass jokes?  Criminal investigators live in the melieu of murder and suffering.  It’s been my experience that they blow of steam with crass humor.  Also, actual murder is more obscene than any word they can say. 

Why the gory body parts showing up in the series: the hand in the ice bucket or the severed foot showing up in the mail?   See the above. We are just human animals, flesh and bone.  When we are murdered, we are nothing but butchered meat.  Now I know, and people have told me,  “but I don’t read mysteries to have my nose rubbed in reality,” and I try to appreciate that.  I don’t think these books are moralistic in anyway, I’m not trying to preach in the books, but I do try to make them unique.  I try to make the violence have some human meaning and not just stagecraft. Like all writers I suppose, I’m trying to recreate a fictional dream, and this dream involves murder and murder by its nature is horrible, and the characters react to it.  There are funny things that happen in their lives, and lovely things,  but as long as there is a murder too, there will be some horror, I cannot unsee the things I know and have felt about actual murder and death. 

Is Cecil based on you?  Sure he is, based on me.  But I’m neither as interesting nor as stupid in my decisions as he is.  I’ve never drank as hard as he has.  I was never as irritating, I hope.  But I’m as flawed and as human, probably.  I’m shorter and weaker and we raised a son, not a daughter.

Why Todd as a sidekick?  I have a cousin like Todd, a high functioning autistic adult.  In the first book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make Todd a series character and he was not quite in focus.  In fact, I killed him off in the second or third chapter and Jan, my wife refused to finish the first draft if I left him dead.  So I had to bring him back.  I like Todd because he redeems Cecil, and his serial obsessions come in handy for the themes and the plots.  

Why the long break from Cecil?  I didn’t think anyone liked him.  I tried lots of other things.  I gave up for a while. Jan has Parkinson’s disease and she had brain surgery, so we have to deal with that, I started the Cold Storage, series.  I write non-fiction and poetry.  I’m lazy and not all that keen on writing books that people already don’t seen interested in.  But a while ago, I actually thought it would be fun to resurrect him if for nothing else but to spend some time with him and Todd and I had all these jokes and had been thinking about jokes and language and their similarity to poetry and how autistic people use them to replicate emotional relationships and I thought it would be fun way to spend my time. So I wrote it. The jokes in "Baby's First Felony" are not just thrown in there willy nilly, by the way.  There is one joke told after a killing that is a terrible joke, that is meant to punch you in the gut and upset you for how wrong it is.  I know it's disgusting and awful, so you don't have to write to me and tell me that.  I put it there because it is awful, it is put there as a kind of commentary on what it feels like when things go wrong.  As Cecil tells the Judges,  "Context is everything."  When things starts spinning out of control it feels like an obscene almost hysterical battering.  That's why the awful joke is in there. So please don't yell at me.  I was trying something different.  If you don't like it.  I understand. You were not supposed to. 

I hope, if you are new to my work, you look around and read some of the old blog posts.  Write to me and I will try and write back to you.  I sometimes forget to check the comments on the blog.  I’m bad about that and the formatting is weird so it’s not obvious to me when they come in.  Write to me in the contact section and I should get those directly.  I won’t respond to crazy flaming political criticism, so if you are looking for a fight you will be disappointed. Life is too short to make enemies.  If you really want to discuss differences of point of view I am happy to do that. I'm not Cecil and I'm really not a bad guy.  If I'm not up to my eyeballs with other things I will write you back. 

It is cool day here and my nephew has finished the lawn and now I promised him that I would teach him how to tie a bowline, so I better get to it. 

 

Cool summer evening,

and the floxgloves are blooming.

I miss our old dog.

 

jhs

Alone...Really?

“How it is I know not; but there is not place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends.  Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other, and some couples often lie and chat over old times till early morning.  Thus, then, in our heart’s honeymoon, lay I and Queegueg— a cozy, loving couple.”     Ishmael, recollecting his first night spent with his future shipmate in the Spouter Inn, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

In San Francisco, my wife and I share a bed in the Royal Pacific Motor Inn.  I love this Hotel, the decor is decidedly turned down, fabulous Asian fifties.  The staff is wonderful and the rooms are clean, and the beds are firm.  The location is on Broadway and Columbus, a half a block from City Lights Books.  The street-side rooms are noisy but that is a small price to pay for free parking and a reasonable room rate.  My dreams are filled with sirens and drama, and wonderful aromas of coffee and cooked vegetables. 

Jan and I snuggle in the king bed on our balcony street-side room and she shares her anxieties with me.  The last few nights she talks about Sperm whales, specifically the big males, and whether they are “affiliating” or not.

Here is the deal.  Remember yesterday when I described the big snout and the sound the sperm whales could generate?  Well, turns out it is very loud.  So, this makes a difference in behavior as well.  Here is how, in a very small nutshell.  Sperm whales have a very, very big yard to play in, essentially the whole ocean they find themselves in.  In the Pacific, the females and the calves hang out, mostly, around the equator and the big males range around way up north… maybe as far up as the arctic.  Why?  Not really sure, but probably because it is safer for the calves, the warmer water for birthing is good, and fewer predators (Orca whales mostly) is good.  Also maybe something about the warm water is good for the lactating females.  Did I just make that up?  Maybe… I just did.  Anyway… calves and females like warm waters.  They feed down there on fish and squid but not as many as the BIG males in the more productive northern waters.  (Remember the whole thing about oxygen yesterday?  Northern waters have less salt and more oxygen, generally so, more stuff to eat)  In the whaling literature these big males are often cited as being “lone bachelors” ,  they are thought not to affiliate with one another because they are not seen together.

But here is where the big noise and the water comes in.  These whales can dive down to three thousand feet, or more and remember they make LOUD noises.  (the loudest of any animal on earth) and in the water there are three things that effect how far sound can travel: temperature, pressure and salinity.    Think of it this way pressure kind of squishes a sound wave flat and it can travel a long long way in the deep ocean if it doesn’t bump into salt molecules, and the cold water the molecules are sloooow so the sound waves cut through easily.   How does this effect behavior?  Easy, these big males are “affiliating” or communicating with each other up to forty miles apart (at least) even if they seem alone, they are together.

So again, in the real world, how would you know, or why would it matter.  Remember yesterday again, I said they have the biggest brain?  Well, it turns out they are clever, they have learned to take black cod off fisherman’s commercial fishing lines.  They have learned the sound of the engines as the fishermen “back hall” the gear to bring the fish up on to the boat and strip it off the line.  Not only that, they can recognize the boat and wait by the gear for the next set.  As I said, clever, plus, they teach this to their cohorts as more and more whales come north.  By using satellite tags Jan and her pals have recorded several big males working together and traveling together, putting a lie… as it were .. to the whole myth of the lone male ranging by himself through the northern oceans.  This is a change in the literature.  In the world of science its a big deal.  Hence the anxiety in the bed of the Royal Pacific Motor Inn about the talk to be given in San Francisco on Wednesday. 

Male stereotypes are pervasive in all cultures.  It was supposed, in his lifetime, because he had six children and a devoted wife (though not so devoted towards the end) that Herman Melville was a staunch heterosexual withan exotic if, not classically inspired admiration of the male form.  It is in his novel Redburn that Melville gives the scholars of queer literature the most evidence that he must have surely been a repressed homosexual.  I have not read this book so I can not judge, but apparently the characters go on a wild binge of debauchery which includes undeniable homosexual characteristics. Of course Melville’s Billy Budd was Beautiful and a symbol of innocence like the love object in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice,  but in all his writings the only love scene where two men actually touch was the (above)  scene where Ishmael and Queegue wake up in the Spouter Inn. 

What Herman Melville did or didn’t do with his penis doesn’t particularly interest me, the fact that he yearned interests me, the fact when he shipped out on the whaling ship for that year and a half and his two years in the south Pacific he came back changed. This is interesting.  He was transformed by nature, and all the rest of his life he tried to make contact with another like soul.  His books were never really read as deeply as he wanted in his lifetime.  He wanted Nathaniel Hawthorn to be his soulmate, he dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne’s genius and when the well established American author wrote to a note of appreciation to the relative newcomer,  Melville wrote back: “I feel the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.  Hence this inline fraternity of feeling.”  

 No pressure though.   

This intensity made Melville seem like a loner, the “Custom’s agent” of literature, but it is said he came to terms with who he was by the end of his life.  If he wasn’t understood, it was their loss, but in the end he wasn’t alone, we were just a long way off.  His voice was loud enough, it was strong enough.  His yearning voice found an ear.   

 

Squeeze and Squeeze

“But in the great Sperm whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified that the gazing upon it, in that full front view , you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature…”    Moby Dick…  Herman Melville

On Saturday I attended the Sperm Whale workshop which brought together experts from all over the world to present quick papers and have discussions on their research.  It was meant to be informal and a way for people to meet and make connections.  They also invited squid and fish experts so that they could have a better understanding of what the things that the sperm whales liked to eat were doing.  Which I thought was pretty clever.

I’ve been married to a scientist for almost forty years now so I’m good at faking like I understand what scientists are saying, but much of the time I’m like the dog in that Far Side cartoon where the owner is saying “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Missy, Blah, Blah,  Missy.”  

But the truth is, I like hanging around with scientists, mostly.  A lot of them like to drink.  A lot, and some of them are quite funny, like lawyers and cops, I think that has something to do with spending a lot of time cutting that fine distinction.  That’s where the humor is after all.  Lots of people don’t like people who use hard words,  that doesn’t bother me.  What bothers me is arrogance, of any kind…and obfuscation, which is what you find when not-so-smart people use words they don’t know, to cover up the fact that they don't really know what they are talking about.  I mention this because, I can, and have been guilty of this, particularly when writing about science.  So, when and if... I sound particularly stupid describing the topics or the science in these coming blogs,  please, please, please, do not take it as a reflection on the intelligence or the eloquence of the people I spoke with, but all blame falls squarely on me.  The tone is not meant to be smarmy.  The tone is meant to be awestruck unless otherwise noted.  

Back to the workshop.  Part of the workshop had to do with the anatomy of the sperm whale’s snout.  Now some people refer to the big part past it’s eye as it’s head, but the two scientists referred to it as it’s “nose.”  It’s filled.  Melville called it its “brow.”  It is the most distinctive aspect of the animal.  Big and blunt as it goes through the water,  The blowhole also pokes off to the left side of the animals head which also makes it distinctive when you see it at sea.  This I’ve experienced for myself.  I’ve been around them in the Gulf of Alaska where we mostly see the big males., Males are bigger, I’m not being sexist here, that’s called being “sexually dimorphic” I’m told.  Moby Dick was a whopper and he was a male, and he was based in fact on a whale that sank the ship the Essex, as we all know know thanks to the big screen.    Anyway this Big Nose is filled with spermaceti which was the prized oil for the whalers, for machine oil and smokeless lamp oil.   The Whales have these incredibly strong lips in the front of the head where they pass air and generate clicks and clangs, This sound passes through the spermaceti and circles through another set of membranes “that are somewhat like lenses that somehow focus the sound… we don’t really know how”  but tests have been done determining that the whales can narrow the sounds to very narrow, (five inch in radius?) beams.  So, not only do Sperm Whales have the biggest brain of any animal on earth, they are the loudest.  Not only that, they can move and shape that big old schnozzola around to shape and focus that sound around.  

Now… why do they do that?  They disorient their prey to slow it down… it’s suspected… again it’s hard to say for sure because no one has ever ridden on the back of one at three thousand feet underwater.  But pretty sure, they locate their prey with echo location, essentially they “see” underwater with sonar, otherwise why have such a well developed sonar system and such shitty little eyes on both sides of their great big noggin.  (again those are my words)   A well known scientist showed her notes from the time, long ago when she took Ken Norris’s class, and she diagramed the anatomy of the whale’s head.  It didn’t look like my notes.  But here are mine.  Ken Norris, by the way was a GOD.

The other part of the workshop I attended, was Bill Gilly’s lecture on squid.  I have met Mr. Gilly before. His wife is a noted authority on John Steinbeck, she wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition to Cannery Row and she is the Director of the Steinbeck Center.  She kind of scares me, not that she means to, she is very nice, she just does.  When we were going to meet Bill at his office in Pacific Grove, I asked Jan about him, and she almost swooned, “Are you kidding me,” she said, “he’s the squid man.”  Jan sometimes forgets who she is married to.  I asked her what that meant and she snapped back to reality and said,  “Oh… Bill Gilly knows more about squid than anybody I’ve ever, met.  Probably anybody, anywhere.”  Now, you should know something about my wife, this is saying something because she knows quite a few squid people.  

So, I could tell there was something happening because people were sneaking into to hear Professor Gilly’s lectures.  There was standing room only by the time he spoke.  He is a big man with a round face.  There is not a trace of arrogance about him, and a sweetness and a love of his subject that comes through.  He seemed genuinely concerned about squid.  Now there was a lot I didn’t understand about certain aspects of his talk, but it was because he was talking to people who he assumed had a working knowledge of ocean chemistry and oceanography. So I asked him a question afterwards,  he had mentioned that tagged squid had been recorded diving to the depth of the “Oxogen Minimum Layer” (which is the depth where oxogen is minimally sufficient to support the prey layer. my understanding again)    and then could dive further, if they were possibly being chased by a whale???   He was cautious, but said that it was certainly possible.  

I asked him what effected the depth of the Oxogen Minimum Layer,  (Mostly I wanted to know how deep it was in Alaska because I wanted to know how deep to fish)  Essentially he said, lots of things effect the useable oxygen in the ocean, and here his voice was even more concerned and he seemed a little more sad, and I didn’t understand and of course I thought I had offended him somehow, but he explained, the depth of the OML(of course there is an acronym) is effected by many dynamic influences, such as sunlight, so that in Alaska it varies with the seasons, but also by currents and river systems.  What drives it is bacteria, refreshing the O2 from the bottom and the side.  “A great deal of the oxogen in the ocean comes from bacteria that is trapped under the polar ice cap and is flushed into the system from the currents.  Now of course with the warming and the disappearance of the ice cap there is a real chance of mass extinction events caused by the possibility of the ocean becoming anaerobic."  

Boom.  

This is the kind of language that doesn’t sound dramatic until it sinks in for a while.  “Mass extinction events caused by the possibility of the ocean becoming anaerobic.”   Then he added,  “Which of course, is very bad.” 

What made it worse for me was the tone of his voice and his eyes.  He knew what he was saying.  We are all connected, of course.  The whales, the squid.  Herman Melville and you and I dear ones.  

Consider this: The days of commercial whaling and out of control harvesting of the great whales are largely over.  We are closer than ever to signing a world wide global warming accord. So, there are good things happening, all the more reason for doubling down in our efforts, I suppose.  All the more reason to remember the poets and mystics of the past.  

Here’s Herman Melville blissful in the gore, processing the spermaceti on the Peaquod: 

Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long, I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it: I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me: and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers hands in it… Come; let us squeeze ourselves into each other: let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”  

Tomorrow:  Herman Melville, Homosexuality, and the “Lone Bachelor”

Falling in Love . . . Again

“We see ourselves in all rivers and oceans.”    Herman Melville

Some rain this morning and heavy, perfumed fog wrapping the trees in the morning, clearing off by ten.  A morning for laundry and writing. 

Tonight we sign books in the Pacific Grove Museum, in Celebration of Ed Ricketts’ and Jack Calvin’s scientific contribution to ecology.  Then we drink boilermakers with scientists and writers and listen to music along the foggy, eucalyptus-scented streets of Pacific Grove. Tomorrow we drive to San Francisco for the Marine Mammal Conference where Jan is to give a paper called “Where the Boys Are” about male sperm whales stripping black cod from fishing lines in the North Pacific and if they truly are “lone bachelors”, as reported in the literature, or “affiliate with each other for ‘reasons of their own.’”  These are my words, not hers, so I don’t know why I put them in quotes. But that really is the gist.  What is not just gist but actual is that she wants to play the Connie Francis song at the beginning of her talk, for the gathering of international experts, which is another reason she is such a badass in the scientific community.  

I applied for and got a press pass for the Marine Mammal Conference.  This is a big deal for me.  I told them it was because I am a writer and I have based characters in my novels on a marine biologist who studies whales.  The nice woman who gives out the passes wrote back and said,  “Yes Mr. Straley, I am quite familiar with your wife and her work,”  essentially saying, “you have no imagination, or scientific brain, you should come to the conference.”  So,  I’m going, I’m telling her, as eye candy, and she groans.

But bad luck for her - I recently read Elizabeth Hardwick’s excellent short biography of Herman Melville.  People have asked me who my favorite author is and the truth is I am serially monogamous with authors and today I have fallen back in love with Melville.  I have read Moby Dick three times:  once in school, which was terrible (as are most school assignments), once when I had first moved to Sitka, was depressed and saw my first whale from shore (much better - I had also just read the Bible cover to cover, word for word so there were some allusions that I was hip to), and the third time when Finn was about nine years old and we read the whole frigging thing aloud, which was fantastic.  Snuggled in bed, Jan loved the whaling data, Finn loved the adventure, and I loved the poetry.  It really was a great family read aloud believe it or not.  The chapters are short and we had a great edition with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I won’t say that there weren’t some nights that I was the only one left awake. I was.  But some nights it was Finn and me and some nights it was Jan and me.  It was easy to read aloud.

So what do Rickets/ Calvin and Melville have to do with one another, you might ask?  Probably nothing.  But here is my argument,  here is what I want to write about in the next week while at the conference:  

What I love, love, love about the best of Melville (there is a lot of not so good, but the best is sublime) is that somewhere in his travels at sea, and his meditations upon them, he had a transformative experience.  Something blew his mind out there - he touched the third rail of the Universe, but unlike any of the other writers of his time,  (except maybe Whitman, who gets pretty Eastern). Melville refuses to name it.  He refuses to call it God, or even call it “Good”. He leaves it to dark, mysterious metaphor.  

I know.  I can hear the grad students and the English professors getting ready to send me their theses. I know. The labels we give the Mysterious Matter.  So, stick with me while I travel with my bad-ass wife to San Francisco to meditate on the great whales and brother Herman Melville. Let’s see what we know, and what we think we know, about the most mysterious metaphor carriers of the deep.

To start us off consider this passage as Ishmael finds himself down by the harbor contemplating seeing his first whale as he looks out over the mild harbor: 

"The great flood gates of the wonder-world swing open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated in my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”    — Moby Dick