Thursday, March 29, 2012

Winter's Bone

Did you see the award winning movie (nominated for four Academy Awards) Trailer?  You should still read the book.  Both are worth the time. The movie is an independent film and uses a lot of amateurs taken from their day jobs to play significant roles. It was filmed on location without a big budget. Don’t let any of that deter you. The film benefits from it all. The director manages to deftly convert what might be weaknesses into strengths.   
Daniel Woodrell, like many of my favorite authors, is often compared to Faulkner. But Faulkner is not one of my favorites. Go figure. In this novel, Woodrell tells a haunting tale of sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly, a girl of the Missouri Ozarks(the area between St. Louis and Memphis). Ree’s father, like many members of her family and the mountain community, cooks meth. And he is out on bail and missing.
Ree’s mother is catatonic, leaving Ree in charge of her two young brothers. The sheriff tells her that the family may lose their home and their land because her father has pledged it as part of the bail bond that has now been violated. To save their home, Ree has to find her father and convince him to return or prove that he is dead. She believes him dead, because Dollys never run. And Dollys never give up their property.  
Ree’s quest pulls back the thin, secretive veneer from life in this mountain community, exposing the carcass like a freshly-skinned deer (sorry, ladies). Woodrell’s exceptional use of language allows us to see the harsh, brutal, and bloody reality of the strange code of secrecy and distorted sense of honor that binds her family and her neighbors together against the outside world. Ree’s quest is cold, violent, dark and dangerous, but her courage is uplifting. I won’t spoil the climax other than to say it is riveting.  
Update on Go Down Looking
Final approval on cover revisions and manuscript issued yesterday. Book should go to press next week and pre-market copies should be available by late April or early May. Full distribution on Amazon and other national outlets won't be complete until about three months. That three months is when important marketing is done. Publisher and I will be only available sources for books until that happens. Thanks for asking. I will let everyone on my list know and will make signed copies easy to obtain. If you are not on my e-mail or snail mail list and would like to be, let me know. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Aunt Hido and the Buttermilk Pie

My great-grandfather and his brother married sisters. And so it went with my father and his brother. Or I guess I could say that my mother and her sister married brothers. Whichever is the correct order, the marriages gave me double cousins.  Having a couple of extra sisters and an extra brother was a good deal. My sister and I seldom argued, but my older brother knew how to push all the right buttons to make me come out futilely swinging.  

I seldom had a cross word, however, with my cousins. Their home was always a place to go when I needed to get away from home. I liked the fact that, in some fashion, I was related to everyone they were related to.

Daddy was sick a lot when we were kids and no doctor seemed to know how to get him well  He had digestive problems that grew progressively worse for almost a decade. He spent four years going in and out of hospitals.Until Dr. Olen Janes correctly diagnosed his problem, it looked as if we would lose him.

I was the youngest and Mother usually took me along when Daddy had to be hospitalized while my older siblings were allowed to stay at home or with friends or relatives. When the absences were really long and it looked as if Daddy might not survive, she had to find places for all of us to board.
I stayed with several wonderful aunts and uncles, but most of my time was spent with Aunt Hildred and Uncle Arch.  Readers of my Rivers Trilogy will know them as Tillie and Seth. Here’s an excerpt about Tillie from Rivers Flow. Jake walked past the table toward his room, but Tillie blocked his exit from the kitchen. She took him in her arms and hugged and patted him. Jake felt himself start to cry and jerked away to try to regain his composure. 

Sometimes, Arch and Hildred had all three of us. They had three children of their own and times were tough.  Imagine adding one, two or even three extra mouths to feed, laundry to do, etc.  I missed my daddy, but I was used to long periods away from him.  A boy that age really needs his mother.  She's usually the one who finds the right clothes and packs the right lunch for school. And you can cry in front of her, admit your fears, and not be too ashamed.

Aunt Hildred seemed to know when I needed Mother the most and she did her utmost to fill that role.  When she wanted to comfort me, she would be Aunt Hido (Hildred was first called Hido by my brother, Richard, who inspired the character Tuck in Rivers Flow) and I would be Shim. She could always make me laugh and feel better. 

I never felt like an intruder in her home.  Everyone in the family shared with me. They at least pretended they were glad to see me come and unhappy to see me go home.  Aunt Hildred would have it no other way.  I can only imagine the burden we placed on her, but she never once let it show.  Of course, Uncle Arch was also welcoming, but I don’t recall his doing much laundry or cooking. 

Aunt Hido was a great cook. I loved her biscuits more than my mother’s and was never disappointed at her table. During one of my extended stays at her house, I came home from school and discovered a freshly-made buttermilk pie in her kitchen. I had a strong sweet tooth. Time (or nausea) has dimmed a lot of the details, but I was either alone in the house or my cousin Kay left me alone with that pie. Either way, the pie was sliced, and I tasted my first piece of the most delicious pie I had ever eaten. I decided that she would not mind if I had another slice.

When Aunt Hido told the story over the subsequent years, she maintained that I ate the whole pie. I think Kay helped, and that, using some sort of childish logic, we left only a slice or two for the others.

One thing is certain. I was very, very sick—so sick I could not even glance at buttermilk pie for thirty years. Instead of arriving home to find a warm dessert for the whole family, Aunt Hido found an empty pie plate and a very sick little boy—a real test for even a patient person.

Do you know what she did?  After putting a cold wet cloth on my head, she laughed.  She laughed.   I was mortified for doing something so thoughtless and stupid. And, I thought I was going to die for my sin. I was sick enough to wish for it. But Aunt Hido got me to laugh.  And we laughed about that until we lost her. 

About twenty years after the pie incident, I returned to my old stomping grounds to open a business. I also took up racquetball. One of my fellow players (a college professor) turned to me soon after I started playing and asked if my name was Ainsworth. Well, I had just put up a big sign near downtown Commerce and I assumed he had seen it. I guess my head swelled a little when I nodded, expecting congratulations.

But it wasn’t the sign that made him recognize my name. “You related to Hildred Ainsworth?”  I was proud to say that I was her nephew.

“Well, you must be proud. She is one of the nicest ladies I have ever met. And she bakes cookies that are nectar of the gods.”

Yep. He knew her all right. Aunt Hildred was working maintenance at the college and cleaned his office. The professor didn’t recognize my name from a big sign or the business I had opened or anything I had done, but by the good humor and good deeds from a very, very fine woman. I learned a valuable lesson that day. My aunt knew what was important. She didn’t preach it, she just practiced it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bloodworth, McCarthy and William Gay


I have had a few responses from readers who read Provinces of Night based on my recommendation. Some shared my view that the book was terrific; others not so much. Everyone agreed that William Gay is a wordsmith. Thanks to all who took the time.

I received All the Pretty Horses as a gift many years ago. When I started reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel, I was put off by the long sentences and the sparse punctuation. But I stuck with it and am glad that I did. McCarthy is one of Gay’s favorite authors and he includes a quote from his writing in at least one of his books. I started my most recent novel trying to leave out the apostrophes on slang dialogue, (as well as quotation marks) but found out I am neither McCarthy nor Gay. I gave it up because I think my readers would be put off.

The responses I received from Provinces readers led to today’s review of the movie based on Gay’s book. Here is a portion of the letter I wrote William Gay, the author, after seeing Bloodworth.

I traveled to Tennessee in 2009 and you were gracious enough to sit down and chat with me for most of an afternoon.  As I told you then, Provinces of Night is my favorite novel of all time.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun after reading your story collection, so I eagerly anticipated watching Bloodworth and was pleased to see Kris Kristofferson featured on the cover of Cowboys and Indians magazine. I finally got to see it this weekend and thought you might be interested on a viewer’s take on the movie.  

I enjoyed the movie and think Kris did a credible job with E. F., although I think you created a character a lot stronger than he played him. He sort of needed that conversation with the truck driver to establish himself as a man who was intelligent and crafty and who could be violent. The young actor did okay with Fleming, but I saw your novel character as not quite so angry.

I know why they had to leave out Albright, but I really hated not seeing him. That pig scene was one of the funniest I have ever read, though I see why they could not reenact it. I also hated that they left out Warren’s son.

Val Kilmer was close to perfect as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, but he bombs as Warren. Warren was, I thought, all wrong both in costume and mannerisms. Your book portrayed Warren, Medal of Honor winner that he was, as much stronger, less of a drunken fool. He was a hard-drinking, hard-living  man who also had a soft streak for his brother’s son, and his own son, of course (that was my take, at least). I would have dressed him in the costume of the day for a handsome man who made a lot of money and did not mind throwing it around, just couldn’t settle down, but far from the vain fool Kilmer portrayed.  I guess they had a hard time with him because the time period in the book is different than the movie.

I usually like Kilmer and Yoakum, but I also thought Dwight Yoakum got Boyd wrong. I saw Boyd as one of the most sympathetic characters in your book. He was an absent father and far from perfect man who lived by a black and white code. “Take my wife, I take your life.” His son’s literary pursuits may have made him uncomfortable, but he usually brought Fleming a book or two to read when he returned from one of his gallivants. This showed his pride and love for the boy and that really rounded him as a complex character. Also, Boyd and Fleming worked hard side by side and Boyd usually brought home food when he returned. And the book’s killing was much more credible than the one in the movie.

The guy who played Brady did a credible job. I certainly like Barry Corbin and enjoyed seeing him in That Evening Sun too, but I was disappointed not to see Itchy-Mama and those great old men on the porch. They had some of the best lines in the book.

I know it must have been difficult for the screenwriter to try to capture the rich characters you created. Congratulations on having the book made into a movie. I may not be able to write best-sellers, but I know a great author when I see one. I have said “I told you so” to lots of folks when the movies came out.

And what did Gay say to all this? Nothing. Remember? He’s reclusive. 

I maintain that Gay can make words sing with both humor and raw emotion. Here’s an example of what was left out of the movie. Albright, a young ne’er-do-well who has a propensity for getting himself into awful predicaments, has to take a hog as payment for painting a barn. His only means of transportation is a car he has painted as a taxicab. He has to transport the hog in the back seat. He looked back and the hog was studying him with something akin to speculation. Halfway across the railroad trestle over the river the hog seemed taken with some sort of fit. It . . . made a razorous slash in the upholstery and dragged out a mouthful of stuffing. . . . He turned in the seat and began to beat the hog about the head and shoulders with his fists. Quit it, he yelled.

The hog manages to escape, of course, and Albright goes after him, leaving his car on the one-lane trestle. A farmer in overalls stops behind the car and looks over the bridge as Albright wrestles with the hog on the river bank. You was to move your car I’d get on out of your way and you could go on about your business. The interruptions breaks Albright’s concentration and the hog uses the moment to escape. The farmer continues. If that’s your hog, and I got no reason to suspect it ain’t, then you can do whatever you want to. But you’re holdin up traffic here. . . . I never knowed anybody to hogfarm out of a taxicab anyway.

This book has humor, but it is dark, too. Consider this scene with E. W. Bloodworth, the character played by Kristofferson.  Bloodworth’s wife Julia has sent word to her father (Bradshaw) to come for her. Bloodworth vows to kill him before he will allow him to take her away.  He’s here because I sent for him, Julia said. I don’t know why anybody would send for a dead man, he told her. I’ll stretch out Bradshaws till they hold each other up like trees felled in a thick woods.  . . . They ain’t quit makin shells. They ain’t quit makin caskets. I’ll stretch out Bradshaws from the biggest to the least, till they have to import caskets out of other states, till they run dry on that and bury them without caskets, till they finally throw up their hands and let em lay where they fall.

He held her finally back to his chest and the soapy smell of her hair in his face and clamped in arms that would not constrain her urgency. If you do that, you’ll have to kill me, too, she finally said. Did I ever hurt you? he asked. You hurt me ever breath I take, she told him. He laid the pistol aside and watched the door close behind her and watched her climb aboard the wagon and watched the old man speak not to her but to the mules, popping the lines and turning the wagon into the dusty roadbed, watched the wagon diminish into the white dust until there was nothing to see but dust settling, and watching even that.

One more excerpt about Bloodworth’s banjo playing. He had a tale to tell. He made you believe it was your tale as well. Police came to tell him to move it along and stayed to listen. Sometimes they even dropped their own half dollars into the hat. Bloodworth sang songs he’d heard and songs he’d made up and songs he’d stolen from other singers. He sang about death and empty beds and songs that sounded like invitations until you thought about them for a while and then they began to sound like threats. Violence ran through them like heat lightning, winter winds whistled them along like paper cups turning hollowly down frozen streets.

Why would you leave those scenes out of a movie?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Once Upon A River and Nashville Chrome

Once Upon A River
Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane is a river girl. That would be the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers in Michigan. The rivers are connected and Margo eventually lives on both. Margo is beautiful. Margo is earthy. She is an expert with weapons and her heroine is Annie Oakley. Interested yet? Bonnie Jo Campbell has created a character I will not soon forget.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially the Depression Era, seem to have spawned characters we have dubbed mountain people, hillbillies, rednecks, river rats, etc. . . And those characters had children that adopted their parents’ dialect and culture. I like the way they (we) talk and their culture fascinates me, especially their music. But I had not heretofore considered Michigan in the seventies a place or time to find these characters.
Campbell proves me wrong. The Cranes and the Murrays carry on a late twentieth century feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys of West Virginia and the back country of Kentucky or the Sutton-Taylor feud of Texas. But this novel is not about the 1970’s feud; it’s about a beautiful teenage girl who seems to be part fish and part wolverine. She belongs to nature, to the river where her father and grandfather taught her how to navigate and how to survive. That teaching becomes essential.
Warning: This book can be raw. There is violence, sexual and otherwise. And you will learn how to skin a muskrat whether you want to or not. Bonnie Jo Campbell makes it all believable. This National Book Award finalist is not exactly an amateur and this is fine work.  Once Upon A River 

Nashville Chrome
I know, I found the title a little off kilter, too. And the cover is awful. Do you remember the Browns? Not to worry, most people I asked don’t recognize this singing trio, either. But I can almost guarantee you will recognize their songs (“Little Jimmy Brown, The Old Lamplighter, The Three Bells”).
Back in 1959, the brother and two sisters had few peers in the music world. Only Elvis rivaled their international musical success. And get this: Elvis was their close friend. Bonnie was his sweetheart, at least in this novel. If you think that sounds far-fetched, think again.
If you’re not into country or pop music of the late fifties and early sixties, I still think you will find much to like in this book. It is lyrical, yet an easy, compelling read, made better by knowing it is a novel based on real events, real people—famous people.
I have already confessed to my love for country music and country people. But you don’t have to be a fan to love this story. Accomplished, multiple award-winning author Rick Bass weaves facts into his fiction with artful, plaintive grace. A writer who can make you hear the music he describes is well, excellent at what he does. Readers can hear the songs as Bass tells the Browns’ sad story. You will also believe his description of how the Browns achieved perfect pitch by listening to the elusive tone of a well-tempered saw blade at their parents’ Arkansas lumber mill.
And those secret visits Elvis made to the Arkansas hills to visit the Browns, especially Bonnie . . . need I say more? Nashville Chrome.