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Winner of Barnes & Noble's 1997 Discover Great New Writers Award
A plane crashed. It was August, a hot, dry day. An hour before it happened, Paul was sitting on a metal folding chair at the edge of his shriveled garden, thinking about the end of his mother's life.
It was the garden that reminded him. Those last three months, she hadn't moved from her bed, and except to tend to her, Paul hadn't left her side. Her demands came in a hoarse monotone that sounded like the cracking of a distant whip. There was little light in the bedroom, owing to her sudden distaste for the outdoors, and Paul could only see outside through the crack of window left exposed beneath the blind. The crack revealed, in the yard below, the back of a cushioned wrought-iron bench and the desiccated corpse of the flower garden that his mother had not had energy or concern to water since she took ill.
This was back in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where Paul grew up. The Beveridge house stood in the Caplewood section of town, a towering plantation-style without a plantation; their money was inherited from Paul's father's grandfather, a speculator in the American frontier. Paul's mother gardened, threw parties, and drank. Paul's father gambled and drank. Paul went to college in town, feigned poverty, grew his hair long, and graduated in seven years. Then his father died of pancreatic cancer, which he had apparently concealed with superhuman stoicism for a year, until he passed out and fell down the curving stairs of their home, breaking his neck in the process. He lived two days, blanked out on painkillers in the hospital. Paul found this out nearly a week later, having been unreachable because he hadn't paid his phone bill. The black woman his mother employed to clean the house showed up at his door. "Your daddy's dead," she said, never taking her hand from the doorknob. "And your mama's in bed. She says she won't ever get out. She says to go tend to her."
"What?" Paul said, barely awake.
"When you get there you can tell her I quit."
This was the beginning of the end of Paul's life in Alabama.
As she died, his mother demanded strange things, then scoffed when he brought them. Three yards of white cotton, scissors and thread. Buttered grits. Clothespins. She ate almost nothing; he fed her until she told him to stop ("Get away from me, you shit," she frequently said when sated), then he would eat the rest. They didn't talk. For some reason Paul didn't actually believe she would die of whatever it was she had. He fully expected things to return to normal once his father's ghost had fled the premises, and his mother to return to the garden with her kerchief and trowel and hip flask. The possibility of her death did not occur to him.
It came in late August. He went to the kitchen to make her a bowl of oatmeal, then returned to the bedroom and set it on the bedside table. She ignored it. He picked up a magazine and began to read. After a while he put the magazine down, scooped up a spoonful of food and brought it to her lips. She didn't take it. Her mouth was slightly open, so he moved the spoon between her lips and dumped the oatmeal. She didn't chew it. He ate some of the oatmeal himself. Then he shook her and found her body cool and unresponsive, and found himself alone in the room, alone in the house, in the world. An orphan. The phone had been shut off long before, so he walked to the hospital and asked what he should do.
Later, the doctor who pronounced her dead would glare at him with untethered hatred. Her body had been riddled with deep, caustic bedsores. Hadn't he noticed? the doctor wanted to know. Did he not have an ounce of compassion? At this Paul cried, not for his parents' pain or loss, which wouldn't move him for some months, but out of fear for what he didn't know: the things he'd missed, the things yet to come.
Now he lived with his wife, Anita, in Marshall, Montana, at the edge of the Salmon National Wilderness Area, in a renovated fishing cabin once owned -- and never used -- by his father. The garden had been Anita's idea. She thought it would be good for him, therapeutic. Paul had agreed. He liked the idea of growing their own food. It made him feel like he was pulling his weight. They had dug it together, a long plot thirty by twenty feet, its rows separated by sunken walkways, and planted according to Paul's research: what went next to what and how far apart, which week to plant, how deep to bury the seeds and how many to drop in the hole. After that, it was Paul's responsibility.
It worked for a short time. They ate fresh salads every night, and Paul diligently pulled weeds and inspected for bugs. Then the weather turned. For the previous three years they'd lived here, summer had been wet and gloomy, the sun a pale disk of little consequence. Yet by the first of this August, there had been a full week of arid, scorching air that supported none but a few pathetic shreds of cloud. The garden sprang to life in the sun, then began to wilt. Paul watered, but the earth made short work of it, the water hissing away into the dirt like drops on a hot pan. He forgot to water one day, and once the following week; and today, at the end of August, he realized that he had lost it. The leaves were bored through and sucked dry, the tomatoes slack and rotten and drooling dark fluid. The greens were gnawed to stumps by rabbits or shriveled flat, and even the potatoes were coming up wrinkled and soft.
He'd come out here intending to give it one more shot, but it was no use. Anita would be disappointed. She'd been giving him significant looks for weeks and commenting with forced nonchalance about the heat. Now he shifted his body, and the parts of the chair that had been exposed to the sun burned his arms and legs. He picked up the bottle of beer he'd pressed into the dirt and drank from it. It was warm.
Anita had been able to take root here in a way that he hadn't. She had a job, taking loan applications at First Marshall downtown, and she'd had her way with the cabin, sanding and polishing and painting so that it finally gave up on its dank dilapidation and relaxed into a ramshackle coziness that made Paul feel, if not at home, at least welcome. It wasn't that he couldn't get jobs. He'd had plenty over the past three years, odd ones mostly. He worked at a tree service for a while, pruning, and had copyedited contracts for a real estate developer; he was a lifeguard one summer and a housepainter the next. But he was aware of an aura of impermanence that surrounded him, and he felt powerless to hang on to anything. His jobs evaporated, his employers told him they had nothing left for him to do. The people he had worked with seemed to know this about him and kept their distance.
It was only Anita who stuck with him, and only she he felt he could hang on to. They had been married four years now, and when he thought fondly of anything in his past, it was Anita: the things they'd done together years before; their holidays and weekends; their shared possessions, the artifacts of their life as a couple. They had met in Tuscaloosa, shortly after Paul's mother died. He bought a suit to wear to the funeral, and the day after to the bank, where he intended to settle his parents' estate. The woman who helped him was barely out of college. She wore a blue blazer and a crisp white blouse, and her desk was in perfect order. This was Anita. She had the cleanest forehead Paul had ever seen, a smooth, white, near-impossible expanse of clear skin. When she looked over his parents' papers, her sweet smell drifted across the desk and fell around him like confetti.
"The house is ours," she said. "After we take what they owe us, you'll get about ten thousand dollars."
Paul leaned over the desk, into the clean cloud. "I don't get it. From the house?"
"No, from everything," she said. She had light brown hair, pulled back from her face.
"That's not right. They're rich."
"Not anymore, I'm afraid."
"I don't understand."
She sighed, then reached across the desk and touched the back of his hand with her fingers. "I'm sorry, Mr. Beveridge," she said. "They ran out of money. There isn't much left, only the ten thousand. And a few hundred more." She showed him the figure on a piece of paper. "You see?"
"Sure." He scanned the rest of the paper. The ten thousand was the highest number on it. He began to calculate how much time this would give him. A year?
But there was a safety deposit box too, and this was where Paul found the deed to the land in Marshall, a place he'd never been to or heard about, and a photograph of the cabin, and a key. The deed had been signed by Paul's grandfather and father. Not long after their wedding, when Paul could barely stand Tuscaloosa anymore, it was Anita who suggested they move there.
His beer was gone when she came home, her car trailing dust. It was a Subaru, a four-wheel-drive wagon. When they'd first moved here, it was what people told them to buy, and they did. He saw her head bobbing behind the windshield and willed her to wave. She did, and he waved back. She stopped the car in the wide patch of dirt they parked in, and got out, briefcase in hand.
"Hey!" he called out.
"What are you doing out there?"
She shaded her eyes with her hand. "I don't see any garden."
Paul shrugged. "C'mere."
"Wait a second," she said. "I'll be right out." She jumped onto the porch and went inside. A few minutes later she came out wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt and carrying her briefcase. She came to him across the clearing and sat cross-legged on the ground near the empty bottle. Her foot snaked out and kicked it over.
"Just the one."
She unlatched the briefcase, turned it on her lap to face him, and opened it. "Happy birthday!" she said. There were three small presents there, wrapped in shiny silver paper, and a white envelope.
"Duh. Open the card."
On the front of the card was a watercolor of a bouquet. A florid script read "To My Love on His Birthday." Inside, Anita had crossed out the poem printed there with a red marker, and had replaced it with the words:
YOU LOVE ME, I LOVE YOU
HAPPY FUCKING THIRTY-TWO
"How sweet," he said.
"I know." She smiled at him and slapped his calf. "Open 'em left to right."
He lifted out the first package, a flat, oblong box about five by eight inches, and shook it. Something thunked against the sides.
He tore off the paper and handed it to Anita, who folded it neatly while she watched him. In the box, he found a note. "Good luck on your NEW JOB," it said. Underneath it was a magnifying glass.
"Cool," he said.
"You can look for clues."
"I don't think it's that sort of thing," he said. Tomorrow he would start working for a private investigator. He didn't want to let on, but he dreaded it. What if he made a mistake? He held the magnifying glass out at arm's length and concentrated the rays on a dead plant. "I can roast bugs, though."
"Open the next one." She handed it to him.
This box was larger, but lighter. He unwrapped it and found a gently folded square of green silk. He raised his eyebrows at her and she smiled. When he lifted it out, it unfolded into a thin nightdress. He held the dress up by its straps and a breeze filled it for a moment, bringing it to life. It seemed to have no weight.
"It'll never fit me," he said.
"Here." She reached out. "Want to see me in it?" She stood up and pushed off her sneakers.
"Anita," he said. "Come on. We're outside."
"Oh, Paul. Who's going to see?" She grabbed the nightdress from his hand and walked around behind him. He heard her zipper, the jingle of a belt. "Don't look."
But Paul was looking away, at a spot over the trees, where a plane, still just a dot, was flying low. He could hear its drone from here. He had the fleeting urge to be on it.
"I'm almost ready," she said.
"Close your eyes."
He did. He heard her feet in the grass, and then her voice. "Open 'em," she said.
She stood before him, posing, one hand behind her head, one on her hip: a joke pose, but she was still beautiful. The wind moved the nightdress, and he could see that she wore nothing underneath.
"It's very nice," he said.
"That's it?" She sat on his lap. "Nice?"
He felt the words coming, assembling in his guts and floating up to his lips like a gas. He thought, I am such an asshole. "I thought we'd..."
"What?" she said, and they looked into each other's eyes. She stood up. "What?"
They were frozen for a moment, their eyes on one another, the hot air and light and the noise of the oncoming plane fixing them more soundly in place with each passing second. Finally she said, "All right then," and bent over to pick up her clothes.
"No, don't," he said.
"I'll take it back. I'll get a refund and you can have the money, how about that?"
"I'm sorry. That was stupid. I knew you didn't mean --"
"No, no, I know what you thought I meant." She tossed the clothes into the briefcase and shut it as far as it would go. The corner of a sock hung out the side. "For once I wasn't thinking about having a baby, just so you know. That was part of the gift, giving that to you. No, whatever you were thinking, I deserved it. It's my fault."
"Please, Anita. I'm just in a rotten... Please keep it. Don't take it back. I like it."
"Forget it. Every time you see me in it, you'll think about how manipulative I am. Forget it."
But she didn't move. She stared at the trees behind him, her shoulders rising and falling with her breath. "I was dumb to think you would ever change. I was dumb to think I could love you enough."
"That's what I learned today, Paul. It only goes so far."
"Love," she said. "It'll only take you so far, and then you're stuck there."
"That's not true," he said. "I'm starting this job tomorrow. That's a change, right?" He struggled for words. "It's my birthday."
"You've started jobs before." Her eyes found him, and her expression was so pitying, so hopeless, that he wanted to run for the woods. Over her head, the airplane had grown, and its wings flashed in the light like broken glass. "It's not you, it's me. I overestimated you," she said. She slipped her thumb under a shoulder strap and rubbed it. "I'll take this back. I'm sorry I bought it." She turned to the house.
"I didn't mean to..."
"I know," she said over her shoulder, the plane's rumble nearly drowning her out. "That's part of the problem. You just said it without thinking."
He watched her as she walked away, and could think now about nothing else: the shape of her body beneath the silk and how her skin would warm it, how sweet it would be to slide the straps over her shoulders and let it fall in a green puddle at her feet. He missed it deeply, this gift she'd given him and now taken away, and there was nobody to blame but himself.
"Paul." She'd stopped just short of the porch and was pointing at the sky.
He looked. The plane was nearly above them now, a passenger plane. They flew over all the time. "What?"
Then a popping sound, and the plane changed direction.
Paul laughed, a defensive gesture, the same thing he did once when he'd been slapped by a woman in a bar. What other reaction could there be? He could no more undo the slap than he could reach into the air and set the plane on its proper course. Something small and dark dropped from the plane, trailing smoke. The plane screamed. He watched the dark object fall for a moment and noticed, with the easy, opportunistic logic of a dream, that it was coming toward them. Then he remembered his wife.
She turned to him, astonished.
"Get behind the car!" he shouted. The words vanished in the noise. He pointed -- "The car!"-- and ran for it, then angled for her instead. "Down! Down!" And at the edge of his vision, the thing falling toward them. He reached her, grabbed her arm, pulled her to the car and pushed her down.
The ground shook, flinging him onto her. He heard, or maybe only felt, her grunt as the air came out of her, and off at the edge of the woods, motion, something fast and black, rumbling away like a great and awful beast. The air stank flatly. The sound of the plane receded. He rolled off her and crouched on his knees in the dirt. "Anita!"
She rolled onto her back, coughing, the nightdress covered with dust and bunched around her stomach.
Then, from the distance, an uneven rattle like an old machine gun's, and a terrible wrenching groan, and a double-bass thud like two punches to the stomach. He toppled again, and a sharp rock found his spine and gouged him there. His back arched automatically and he swept the rock out from under him. Above the trees, a cloud of smoke rose, sudden and black.
"Oh my God," she said.
"Did you see? Did you see that thing?"
Paul got to his feet. The back corner of their house was crushed, sheared away as if by a giant claw, and debris dotted the grass around it like bones. Beams jutted, broken off and bent. A crater the size of a car yawned ten feet beyond the house, and past it a wide, rough track of torn-up earth led across the yard, through the wasted scraps of their toolshed to the edge of the woods. There, between two trees, sat the object, crumpled and smoking like a cigar stub, its butt end blackened. An engine, an airplane engine. The light grew dim as smoke filled the sky.
He helped her up, noting with alarm the red marks his fingers had left on her arm. Her mouth hung open. "Oh, my God, Paul."
"Are you okay?"
"Wait," she said. She stuck her arms out at her sides, the fingers splayed. Her eyes squeezed shut. She inhaled deeply, held it for a moment, then let it out. "Okay. Go call nine-one-one."
Paul ran into the kitchen and picked up the phone. He dialed. The living room was weirdly illuminated by natural light; its corner was gone. A photo that had been hanging there was gone. Their records had fallen from the shelf and lay now on the floor, fanned like a deck of cards. The window had shattered, and pieces of it were sprayed across the couch and floor. Through the empty window frame he could see Anita stepping into her underwear and pulling on her sneakers.
"Emergency," said the phone.
"A plane just crashed," he said.
"You say a plane crashed?" It was a woman's voice. She pronounced each syllable separately, like a schoolteacher.
"In the woods near our house. Part of it hit our house." Outside, Anita knelt on the ground, tying her shoes. "It was a passenger plane, I think."
"We haven't heard anything on this yet."
"It just happened. I mean, a couple seconds ago."
He heard the click of a pen. "Okay. Where are you?"
"Way out on Valley Road. Two-one-five-four-oh Valley Road. On the left, right before the Salmon Wilderness." Anita stood up and ran toward the woods. "Oh, geez."
"Get police and ambulance and fire. Fire, definitely. The woods'll burn for sure."
"You say it's a big plane?"
"Yeah, pretty big, I think."
"Can you --"
"Yeah, hey, I gotta go." Anita plunged into the trees, her sneakers flashing white in the shadows.
"Sir, I need your name."
"Paul Beveridge. B-E-V-E-R-I-D-G-E. I really have to go. I'm sorry. Please send them out here."
The briefest of pauses. "Okay."
He ran into the woods. At the edge of the clearing stood a few aspens, still a vibrant green and white despite the drought. Beyond them the conifers thickened around him like a soft, damp cloth. The smoke, acrid and coarse, had already drifted this far, and he lifted his T-shirt to his lips as a filter. Ahead he saw only haze and more trees. He called out to Anita, but his words got lost in the pine needles and murky air. Somewhere ahead there was a stream; it ran down the valley and into the river. He slowed to get his bearings and saw the stream up ahead, glistening weakly. By the time he reached it, he could see what must be the wreckage in the distance -- there was an eerie glow, fire, and the shifting trunks of trees allowed him a glimpse of gray and white and the gentle, unmistakable curve of metal. The stream was low from lack of rain, and he hopped over it easily.
"Anita!" No answer.
But not far ahead, he saw her: the slim expanse of her back, motionless beneath the green silk, and the pink bottoms of her shoes. She was kneeling at the foot of a tree.
She turned to him, and her face, framed by spruce trunks in the middle distance, appeared like a ghost's in the haze. Then she turned back.
He ran toward her, and came suddenly to a small clearing, where sunlight drew his attention to something in the grass: a woman's purse. It sat there, open, as if someone had simply set it down for a moment, its shoulder strap trailing along the ground like a garden snake. He stopped and peered inside: the usual jumble of stuff. He crouched over it, reached in and pulled out a checkbook.
The forest was perfectly quiet, and he felt watched. He stood up with the checkbook. Looked around. Nothing, no people, only Anita, still hunched under the tree.
The checkbook cover was black plastic and had a cartoon of Bugs Bunny embossed on it. Bugs wore a tux and munched a carrot. Inside, the checks had been printed with scenes from famous Looney Tunes: Sylvester chasing Tweety, Fudd chasing Bugs, Daffy whipping his head back and forth like a dog. The owner's name was Pamela Kinyon. She lived on Southwest Weir. Paul recognized the address, an apartment complex somewhere near Bi-Lo, where he sometimes went to buy beer. He flipped through the carbons, noting where the woman had been and what she had bought: $5.00 at Starbucks, $27.50 at Elliott Bay Book Company, $19.00 at an Italian restaurant, Santori's. A trip to Seattle. Earlier checks were made out to her landlord, to AirAmerica. He looked up again, through the woods, at the wreckage. The smoke was thicker now, the plane harder to make out, the glow of fire eerier, like the light from a jack-o'-lantern. He turned back to the checkbook and a drop of liquid fell there: sweat. It was getting hotter.
Replacing the checkbook, his hand brushed something that felt familiar, and he pulled it out. It was a film canister, and he shook it. A roll of film clattered inside.
He went to her, shoving the film into his back pocket as he ran. His eyes had begun to sting. When he came up behind her, he noticed the heart-shaped sweat stain blossoming on her back and the defeated, rounded set of her shoulders, and so didn't see the boy until he had almost arrived. It stopped him short, six feet behind her.
The boy lay on his back at the base of a blue spruce, his left side burnt black, his hand, his foot, his face. Paul stepped closer, knelt, and rested his hand on Anita's shoulder. Her skin leaped beneath his touch. The boy's right leg was cut deeply just below the hip, and the ground around it had blackened with blood. His right hand gripped a branch, and he wore a white T-shirt, much of which was burned to his body. It read, in black letters partially obscured by burns, "Skate or die." His right eye was open and blank. He couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve years old.
"Are you all right?" Paul asked her.
"There was nothing you could have done."
"I guess," she whispered. There was a terrible smell, the turpentine stink of burning sap, and urine and the greasy stench of meat. Paul couldn't look up now, couldn't look at the crash, afraid that the woods would open up before him like a picture puzzle and reveal a grisly tableau of human debris where before there'd been nothing but trees. He closed his eyes and reached for his wife. His hands found her arms and he pulled her up. She leaned against him, her hands hanging motionless at her sides, and when she found her footing and pulled away, they turned together in the heat and started back.
At the creek, they stopped and let the water soak into their shoes and socks, and splashed it up against their legs. Anita's knees and ankles were black with blood, and as she washed she uncovered a two-inch gash across one knee. Her own blood flowed bright red from it. Blood had dried on the nightdress. She rinsed it and squeezed it out again and again.
In the distance, sirens.
In the night, after the reporters and police, Anita lay in bed, her eyes open, while Paul sat at the kitchen table, looking through the living room, through the hole in their house to the trees. Lights flashed, voices crackled through radios and walkie-talkies, ambulances hunkered in the dark like icebergs, their doors opening and shutting. On the table in front of Paul stood the film canister, unopened, and Anita's briefcase, which he had rescued from the yard. He reached out and pulled the briefcase to him, took out Anita's T-shirt and socks and shorts. Under them he found his last birthday present. He quietly unwrapped it.
It was a cardigan sweater. He set the wrapping aside, pushed back his chair and stood up. He pulled the sweater on over his T-shirt, and fastened each button, careful to align them all properly, to smooth out the wrinkles and adjust his arms in the sleeves. The air had grown cold, and the sweater felt good.
CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES.
On Tuesday, March 17, barnesandnoble.com welcomed J. Robert Lennon, author of THE LIGHT OF FALLING STARS.
J. Robert Lennon: Nope -- let's dive right into the ether. Participants will forgive me, I hope, if my server goes down and I have to spend a couple minutes dialing up again.
J. Robert Lennon: My first name is John.
J. Robert Lennon: The book was inspired entirely by childhood nightmares about air disasters. "Fearless" is a good movie, though.
J. Robert Lennon: I majored in literature. My wife did an undergraduate writing program at Oberlin, though, and she loved it. I suppose my opinion of such a program would depend on the individual writer; it would have been a disaster for me. I wasn't a very serious person in college. I did have Kristen Hunter-Lattany as a teacher, and she was extremely encouraging.
J. Robert Lennon: They do not appear in my work, save for a single instance My ex-landlord and his dog are in THE LIGHT OF FALLING STARS. The landlord got a kick out of it, but the dog was incensed.
J. Robert Lennon: Depends on the books I'm reading a few, I guess. I read all kinds of things. I just finished Ian McEwan's new book, which is terrific, and I'm now on Jonathan Franzen's second novel, which I also like. We have a nine-month-old son, so I read a lot of books featuring colorful pictures and simple, declarative sentences. For the record, my favorite novel is CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
J. Robert Lennon: Heather, please don't call me that. Just kidding. I dunno, really -- I've felt like a writer for about eight years, and I don't really care what I'm called.
J. Robert Lennon: Of course you're right. But my beef about the Internet is not what the careful user will do with it but what precedent it might set for those who grow up with it as the primary communication medium. Television, I think, has done enormous damage to our collective empathy, but that doesn't mean that everyone who watches it will be permanently harmed. I made that comment to be inflammatory, because I think we need to consider new media carefully, instead of engaging in the kind of free-for-all that is currently afoot.
J. Robert Lennon: No, I haven't. I think filmmakers usually like a single character who can be a hero; my book is kind of fragmented. Films made from books are often quite good, but those that are good usually follow their own rules, rather than the book's, I think.
J. Robert Lennon: Hey, is that my old high school chum Beth? I thought I knew where the book was going -- I had an outline and everything -- but it went astray, I think for the better.
J. Robert Lennon: Sure. Not all of them have been good, either. But you know, the book is published and out in the world, and if I started worrying about what people thought of it I'd go mad. By the time reviews came out on TLOFS, I was working on another book and could put them out of my mind. I'm glad its reception has been so positive, though.
J. Robert Lennon: Just one. It was about a rock band on tour. It is bad. If you want to read it, just break into my parents' basement in New Jersey, which is where the manuscript has been banished to forever. I wrote many dozens of short stories, too, before I published one of those.
J. Robert Lennon: The new book is indeed a comedy. So far, I have written exactly one thing, a short story, that has no explicit instances of attempted humor in it. I think comedy (black, of course) is my normal mode, and I will employ it in varying degrees for my whole writing life, but regarding the future My third book, which I'm currently researching, will be pretty heavy, I think. It takes place on a failing sheep ranch in the 1950s, not the ideal site for the kind of antic set pieces my imagination invariably runs toward.
J. Robert Lennon: Actually, I am writing full-time right now, knock on wood. It seems likely I'll have to supplement this with teaching at some point, if I can find any in my neck of the woods. As for nonfiction, I am casting about for article ideas. I want to do it, but it is an unfamiliar idiom and it will take some time to get going. I have indeed read Rick Bass, and like his stories.
J. Robert Lennon: As I said, yes, I do want to. I taught some fiction writing at the University of Montana as a grad student and really loved it. Do you, perchance, run an English department in upstate New York?
J. Robert Lennon: That depends on the book. For TLOFS, I didn't have to do much just some plane crash protocol and a few other minor things. For my new book I had to learn how to draw comic strips, and for the next one I have a mountain of books I need to read. When I was younger I hated research -- I am very impatient to start writing -- but these days I am making myself slow down and pay attention.
J. Robert Lennon: A short list Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov; Alice Munro, Stephen Dixon, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty; lots of truly terrible science fiction and horror writers; many close friends whose work I admire. I could go on all day.
J. Robert Lennon: To hell with your stinkin' friends! No, I can understand that point of view, though I remain happy with the way the book turned out. There are great novels with very minimal character development and awful novels with hundreds of pages of same -- it's a matter of taste, I suppose. In this case, it was a challenge trying to make five separate characters serve as the main character of the same novel, and I think the broadness of the palette might have put some people off. Of course, you don't hear people saying that about ANNA KARENINA, so perhaps I just have to put my nose back to the grindstone.
J. Robert Lennon: Each time I decide I prefer writing one to the other, I change my mind. Right now I'm working on a bunch of stories. In a sense they are harder than novels -- there's a specific rhythm that is difficult to produce -- but of course, if a story stinks, you just throw it out, whereas if a novel stinks you have spent several years kidding yourself. As far as reading them goes It's apples and oranges. Alice Munro is my favorite living writer, and I just read a great collection by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard.
J. Robert Lennon: A friend and mentor who is another client of hers. For the record, if you're looking for an agent, it isn't necessary to have an inside track. Find out who represents the writers you like and query that person.
J. Robert Lennon: It's hard to say there's a process, since I've only written a couple of novels. But so far, it basically works like this While writing a novel, I get all these ideas for stories and poems and things that I don't have time to work on, and I set them aside. Then the execution of those ideas serves as the buffer between novels. I know a lot of writers who have long fallow periods, which are very painful for them. So far I've been pretty lucky keeping the machine going.
J. Robert Lennon: In the original conception, Bernardo was, believe it or not, a Chinese peasant. He was going to think he was in a kind of Buddhist purgatory. I was having a lot of trouble making the religious elements fit my plan, however. One day I told a friend about the problem (David Gilbert, to whom I owe thanks for this), and he said, "Make him an Italian!" My family is half Italian (the dominant half, you can probably imagine), and I understood the culture, the presence of God and family and shame, and went with it. I should confess that I had never actually been to Italy when I wrote the Italy bits, so I hope no grocers from Calabria are put off.
J. Robert Lennon: The guy at the bowling alley who doesn't want anyone to bowl.
J. Robert Lennon: I had a great childhood, but high school.... My dad was a star athlete at Phillipsburg Catholic and my younger brother quickly made a name for himself in several sports, so I felt a little pressure to measure up. After a couple years of basketball and track I threw in the towel and began slouching about with a bunch of melodramatic theater people and singing badly in musicals, and before long I was playing keyboards in a rock band, wearing a white fedora, and parting my hair in an extremely unflattering way. So what I'm saying is, the very football players and wrestlers who oppressed me drove me into the arts and are indirectly responsible for everything I write. My new book, by the way, is a kind of love letter to New Jersey.
J. Robert Lennon: People have been generous with their attention, and I have been taken surprisingly seriously. It is correct to suspect people of my generation -- we have produced some truly awful things, like "Friends" and the neo-swinger movement -- but I've been regarded with an open mind.
J. Robert Lennon: Thanks for having me on, and thanks to everyone for their interest in my work.