Good to Know
In our interview with Whorton, he shared some fun facts about himself:
"My sister is Julie Fleming, author of the wonderful novel Moving Lila, published by St. Martin's in 2000."
"I'm a contributing editor of the online magazine Public Scrutiny, at www.publicscrutiny.net."
"My first job was at the McDonald's on Pine Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I worked for two months, then quit and used the money to buy a 1967 Fender Mustang and a tiny amplifier. Later on I worked at Austin's Restaurant, which is no longer there. Once I waited on Elliot Chaze, author of the pulp classic Black Wings Has My Angel. He ordered the plate lunch special, a pork chop smothered in a great quantity of beige gravy. When I set it in front of him he said, "Someone's been very sick in the kitchen."
"My wife and I just got back from a trip to China, where we met many friendly people and saw a lot of small motorcycles that reminded me of the one-cylinder Honda my father sold 20 years ago. I have a 1975 Honda 360, which is a great-looking small bike and would have fit in well there. Evidently, China is the largest motorcycle market in the world. The traffic we saw was a little chaotic, but on the whole probably safer than a ride to town in East Tennessee, where all of our neighbors drive gigantic diesel pickups that are so loud, they could run over you and not hear the shouting."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Whorton had to say:
Summer's an excellent time to give yourself a boost by reading the first books of literary titans. I suggest:
Graham Greene's first novel, Brighton Rock -- A small-time criminal named Pinkie commits a murder; a miserable young woman named Rose has the proof. Pinkie sees that if he will seduce and marry her, the court cannot compel her testimony. But since this is a Graham Greene novel, the ugly and unpleasant Pinkie is also a sincere Roman Catholic, and to undertake the sacrament of marriage falsely means eternal pain -- "the clash of razor blades infinitely prolonged."
Vladimir Nabokov's Mary -- In which we spend a few days with a Russian exile in Berlin as he prepares to be reunited with a childhood love.
Robert Frost's first collection, A Boy's Will, from 1915 -- The title is, I think, taken from a Longfellow poem about how boys think large thoughts but keep changing their minds.
Elizabeth Drew's first book, Washington Journal -- This began as a series of dispatches to the New Yorker during 1973 and '74, as Congress prepared to impeach and try the President. Drew is great on the mood of Washington during that period -- the reaction as news spread about the Saturday Night Massacre, for example, or another subpoenaed tape gone missing. Her discussion of the Constitutional complexities is thoughtful, even meditative. She was in the midst of it. There is a memorable account of Nixon's appearance on the Grand Ole Opry alongside Roy Acuff, with Nixon knocking out a couple of tunes on the piano.
Come Back, Dr. Caligari, the first story collection by Donald Barthelme, from 1964 -- My copy was bought used, and the previous owner has annotated it. For example, she notes at the bottom of page one that Quemoy and Matsu are "islands owned by Red China." When no one remembers what postmodernism was, people will still be crying with pleasure over "Me and Miss Mandible."
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, 1928 -- Actually, this book is good all year.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself -- Published fifteen years before the Civil War. College students in predominantly Scotch-Irish East Tennessee love this book and are moved by it.
Winter Money, the first collection of short stories by turf writer Andy Plattner -- Mr. Plattner picked the winner of the 127th Kentucky Derby, Monarchos, a year before that race happened. His collection won the Flannery O'Connor Prize.
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein -- Yes, it feels a little pretentious to say so. I am glowing with embarrassment. Wrap this book in a copy of People and take it to the beach with you.
The Secret of Terror Castle, which is not Robert Arthur's first book, but it is the first book of the series he started in 1964 and for which he is best known, the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery series. The protagonists are three boys who ride around Southern California in a gold-plated Rolls Royce solving crimes that the adults cannot figure out. Their secret headquarters is an old trailer hidden in a junkyard. I wish this series would be reissued, but I'm afraid it never will be. These were books for boys who were fascinated by things like periscopes, photographic darkrooms, and homemade walkie-talkies. Those days are gone.
In the fall of 2003, James Whorton, Jr. took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Moon Deluxe, by Frederick Barthelme. I read it first when I was in high school, and I remember having to stop and reread sentences out of pure marveling admiration and enjoyment. These were sentences like little smooth machines, cool, smart, and secretly full of wonder and love for the world. It seems impossible that a sentence could convey these things, right down in its syntax -- but these did, and do.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?True Grit, by Charles Portis -- This book is intensely funny and unlike anything else, and for pure surprise and beauty, its closing sentence ranks with the close of Lolita ("aurochs and angels, and the secret of durable pigments....")
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- "Why can't Miss Watson fat up?"
Stories of Chekhov -- I don't know which collection or translation is best. Chekhov is the master of the seemingly tossed-off short story, apparently composed in about the amount of time it takes you to read it.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Funny, sad, beautiful, and as implausible as any children's story.
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson -- Like a friend who keeps you up all night. She can stay awake longer than you can.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather -- A novella about being in love with a tomboy.
Heroes and Hero-Worship by Thomas Carlyle -- Carlyle said that in his judgment, loyalty is the finest and loftiest of human virtues. Imagine someone saying that today. The reason he is not more widely read now, I speculate, is that his vigorous and ejaculatory style was so widely imitated in the 19th century that readers got sick of anything Carlylesque. But he will come back around, I hope.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- Read it immediately!
Essays of Simone Weil. There are various posthumous collections -- Waiting on God is a good one. "From this point of view it is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin," she says.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell -- An account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War. I recommend this ahead of his novels, because of its straightforward style and also because of the intelligence and care of the writer. One thing I take from this book -- and Simone Weil makes the same point over and over, I think -- is that a very large part of morality consists in simply paying attention to what is going on in front of you. Look, listen, and attend to what is there.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
State and Main, written and directed by David Mamet. Notice he gets the crucial pothole into the very first scene. He knows what he's doing. Also his film The Spanish Prisoner, which is near about perfect in every way, including the soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, and also approaching perfection: The Third Man, written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Glenn Gould's Bach; Duke Ellington; Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I don't listen while writing, though.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
P. G. Wodehouse. He's absolutely entertaining, a consummate artist, concise, intelligent, and funnier than almost anyone.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
New novels, or old ones that I've enjoyed.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No special rituals. All I have on the desk is whatever I'm working on, and something to write with. Sometimes a dictionary.
What are you working on now?
Another novel, set in Tennessee. This one involves Andrew Johnson, the 17th president, who used to live about 30 minutes from my house. Well, to clarify: It now takes 30 minutes to get from our house to Johnson's. In Johnson's era, it must have taken half a day. Our house was here then, and I wonder if he ever visited it in the early days when he was campaigning for the Tennessee General Assembly.
Many writers in the Discover program are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I sent my first story off when I was 12, to Road Rider magazine. The editor who rejected it was very gracious and sent me a sticker.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
John Henry Fleming, though actually he has already been discovered -- his first novel, The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, was published in 1996. His stories have the strangest feel, like fairy tales with a dangerous edge. Think of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, only for adults. He is also, I am happy to say, my brother-in-law.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep at it.
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